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Massachusetts Food Waste Ban Gains Broad Acceptance

Massachusetts composting companies like City Soil, which turn food waste into compost that can be used on gardens and farms, say they expect to get quite a bit of new business from the food waste ban.
Courtesy of City Soil
Massachusetts composting companies like City Soil, which turn food waste into compost that can be used on gardens and farms, say they expect to get quite a bit of new business from the food waste ban.

Americans alone, on average, throw out about 20 pounds of food a month, most of it hauled away with the trash.

In October, Massachusetts began telling any institution — like businesses, colleges and hospitals — that produces large amounts of food waste: Not in our landfill. Massachusetts law now says that if you throw out more than a ton of food waste a month, it can't go to a landfill.

But what does a ton of food waste look like? For an answer, I went to a fairly big banquet hall called the Log Cabin.

Mick Corduff runs the kitchen there. "In many parking lots and pizzerias and all that, around the place you'll often see a dumpster on the site of the building. Usually one of those dumpsters holds about 2 1/2 to three tons," he says.

The Log Cabin already diverts their food waste to a pig farm.

Corduff says, "As far as getting our ducks in a row, we started probably five, six, seven years ago. It's not the easiest thing in the world."

And as it turns out, the Log Cabin's not alone.

"I think it's about 75 percent are already moving forward with this," says Dave Cash, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner.

He attributes the huge number of early adopters to nitty gritty work that began about six years ago and made for an unusually smooth legislative process.

It's "very rare for an environmental regulation to have no opposition," says Cash. "And this has had no opposition."

The National Waste and Recycling Association's Steve Changaris says his group fully expected to testify against the legislation. But they didn't. The state's plan was so good that even the haulers could get behind it. But he says the ban is also just the beginning.

"It doesn't address where is it gonna go, whether it's more expensive. It doesn't address whether it has to be shipped 300 miles. It doesn't address a whole boatload of things," he says.

Right now there are only a few answers to the "where's it gonna go" question. There are a couple of anaerobic digesters in the state — huge enclosed machines that churn the waste, kind of like the inside of a cow's stomach.

A lot of the food waste is trucked to farms. Or it can go to Bruce Fulford.

Fulford's company, City Soil, runs one of Boston's composting sites. For about 15 years, Fulford's been transforming all kinds of organic waste and turning it into these huge, deep, rich brown piles of "compost, with some soil blended in," he says. It's all "composted food waste and yard waste, blended together, and some manure from the local zoo."

And oddly enough, it doesn't smell that bad. It doesn't smell like garbage or manure.

"If we could compost food waste right across from a golf course and multimillion dollar homes and do it well, we knew that we had an approach that was worth replicating," he says.

Composting companies like City Soil expect to get quite a bit of new business from the food waste ban. With energy company investors looking to develop new technologies and more anaerobic digesters.

Massachusetts is not alone. Vermont, Connecticut and New York City are reducing or working on reducing food waste from landfills. And San Francisco's been doing it for more than a decade.

Still, as of now, this is a drop in the garbage pail of the roughly 34 million tons of food Americans throw out each year.

Copyright 2014 New England Public Media

Corrected: November 5, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story stated that Americans, on average, throw out 20 pounds of food a week. In fact, Americans toss an average 20 pounds per month.
Susan Kaplan

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