Beginning in October of this year, the commonwealth of Massachusetts will become one of the few states to ban commercially sourced food scraps from all landfills. The ban itself was announced in May of last year by Governor Deval Patrick, whose administration has spent the last several months preparing businesses and other institutions for the ban.
The ban will affect all entities who produce more than one ton of organic food waste a week with restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities, and supermarkets representing the bulk of the industries affected. In total, some 1,700 businesses will have to separate their food waste from their regular trash. Some businesses, such as supermarkets, will have the option of donating leftover food to various organizations. Any remaining food must be sent to anaerobic digestion facilities, or used for compost/animal-feed. The new regulations do not affect households or small businesses.
The food waste ban is driven by the state’s aggressive push towards reducing its reliance on landfills for waste management. The administration has set targets to cut disposal rates by 30% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Food waste is an ample target for reaching that first milestone, with roughly 25% of all landfill debris consisting of organic waste.
However, banning food waste from landfills has created another problem for the state, namely where to put all of that debris if not inside of a landfill. For that, the state is turning to a mix of farmers, waste water treatment plants, and existing food waste recycling operations. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, or MassDEP, has awarded farmers and treatment plants up to $1 million worth of grants to help establish their own anaerobic digestion plants to help turn all that food waste into heat and electricity.
Many waste water treatment plants are already built to handle food waste, as the same process for generating power from waste water, anaerobic digestion, is used to convert food scraps into energy. The process of anaerobic digestion uses microbes in an oxygen-free environment to breakdown organic matter, resulting in the production of methane. This potent hydrocarbon can then be burned to power turbines or piped to buildings for heating.
While the ban has many supporters across the state, a few business leaders have expressed concern over potential cost increases. Many restaurant owners see their costs increasing now that they have to separate their food waste and have it hauled away by a different company/service. But for the state’s environmental lobby, the ban will provide a boon to Massachusetts’ renewable energy portfolio, as well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the commonwealth’s landfills.