On October 1, 2014 the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) began enforcing the Commercial Food Waste Ban, an effort to divert food waste from landfills. MassDEP targeted food waste and other organics in part because it was the largest segment of the municipal solid waste stream. Food and other organics account for well over a million tons a year of the approximately 5.5 million tons of waste Massachusetts disposes of in landfills and incinerators every year.
In 2014, MassDEP estimated that about 100,000 tons of food waste was already being diverted each year. MassDEP’s goal, stated in the 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan, was to divert an additional 350,000 tons a year of food waste by 2020.
The ban requires any entity disposing of at least one ton of organic material per week to either donate or re-purpose any useable food. The remaining food would then be sent to an anaerobic digestion (AD) facility or to composting and animal feed operations. 1,700 businesses and institutions are impacted by the Ban. To help support these producers adhere to the Ban, MassDEP and the Center for EcoTechnology (CET) created guidelines and best practices, educated stakeholders, and promoted the program.
The total reported diversion of food waste in 2016 was 260,000 tons – an increase of 150,000 tons over 2014. This number includes food waste that was composted (166,000 tons), processed in an anaerobic digester (57,000 tons), donated (22,000 tons), fed to animals (4,000), and processed with wastewater (13,000). MassDEP estimates that the organics being fed to animals, which is difficult to measure, is actually higher, and that about 50,000 more tons a year end up in the sewer systems via onsite disposal systems. In 2017 MassDEP released an economic impact analysis on the commercial food waste ban which found that in two years the commercial food waste ban created more than 900 new jobs, and $175 million in economic activity.
The proliferation of organics infrastructure is key to the success of this effort, and the Commonwealth has made loans and grants to promote the development of new composting and AD facilities. In 2014 there were about 30 composting and AD operations with the capacity to accept about 150,000 tons of organic material a year. Currently there are more than 45 sites, with compost capacity for 150,000 tons a year and AD capacity for 315,000 tons a year. Even more importantly, there is additional capacity under development for about 570,000 more tons a year.
Does this solve Massachusetts’ food and organic waste problem? No, there is still a long way to go. There are still about a million tons a year of organics going to landfills and incinerators. MassDEP needs to lower the threshold for the organics ban to require those institutions that are producing less than a ton a week of food to divert their food waste. At the same time, more resources need to be dedicated to the challenging task of enforcing the ban.
The work done so far is a great example to other states, and could be a model for how other waste streams are handled in the future. Food system stakeholders from all sectors have a role to play in ensuring that this success continues, by helping to educate producers and processors about the ban, and advocating for strengthened regulations and more resources for enforcement and education.
- Kirstie Pecci, Zero Waste Project, Conservation Law Foundation