Massachusetts Imposes Ambitious Law to Eliminate Commercial Food Waste

In a world where there is a glaring equality gap in the provision of food and adequate nutrition, plus increasing strain on the global food system from a growing population, food waste is becoming a much-discussed issue.

With the staggering quantities of food waste produced in the Western world (an estimated 40 percent wastage in the US alone), the intensified focus on the issue is much-needed. In April, a US-based alliance of food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators released a toolkit aimed at helping organizations manage and reduce the amount of food waste they produce; while Europe has also recently revealed plans to take preventative action through a range of new technologies and collaborations throughout the entire food supply chain.

Now in Massachusetts, big steps are being taken to combat the problem, as the State prepares to enact a highly ambitious commercial food waste ban — the largest in the US to date.

The ban, which is set to be implemented on October 1, will apply to all institutions producing more than one ton of food waste per week, which includes roughly 1,700 public institutions including schools, hospitals, supermarkets and food producers. The new legislation will prevent these institutions from sending their food waste to the landfill — a costly option for waste disposal and a key contributor to climate change as a greenhouse gas producer. Instead, the edible food will be donated and the rest either shipped to an anaerobic digestion (AD) facility or distributed to farmers to use as animal feed.

This ban is part of the state’s overall waste-reduction plan, which aims to reduce its waste streams by 80 percent by 2050. Food waste is a major component of this stream, contributing about 17 percent, or 830,000 tons in 2011 (according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s most recent data).

"It's a material that we've historically wasted,” David Cash, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, told NPR. “And now we're putting in place the rules and regulations that should allow this resource to be utilized in lots of different kinds of ways."

Cash also said he has been responsible for planning the ban for nearly a decade, and has been spending the last five years supporting institutions in preparing for the transition to a zero-waste policy. He estimates roughly 80 percent are already complying with the new legislation, or have a plan in place.

One of the aims of the ban is to prevent the waste being generated in the first place by promoting a mindset in which people only take what they need. However, some waste is unavoidable, which is where the new legislative requirements come in.

One of the benefits of sending the waste to anaerobic digestion facilities is that this can be transformed into biogas which can be used as fuel. AGreen Energy has introduced two AD facilities to farms in Massachusetts. One of these is located on Barstow’s Longview Farm, which produces milk for Cabot Creamery: Cabot makes butter from the milk, before sending its byproduct (buttermilk) back to the Barstow facility, where it’s mixed with manure.

"We ... mix [the food waste] together with the manure, and it goes into the digester. A digester is nothing more than a mechanical cow's stomach," Bill Jorgenson of AGreen Energy told NPR.

Just like the process that takes place in a cow’s stomach, the digester produces methane, which is then piped to a generator that transforms it into electricity to power the farm, while energy captured off the generator produces heat. Barstow’s farm sells its electricity to the Cabot facility, with the residue from the digester being applied as fertilizer.

According to Cash, the impending ban could promote a chain of positive repercussions:

  • It allows more food to find its way to hungry mouths;
  • Organizations save money on waste disposal;
  • There will be fewer landfills and their contribution to greenhouse gas levels will be reduced;
  • Increased renewable energy production from anaerobic digestion;
  • A further source of fertilizer (which itself has a range of negative environmental impacts).

The state is also encouraging the set-up of further anaerobic digestion facilities by providing farmers with grants to build or buy digesters, or help existing water treatment or landfill facilities expand into food waste digestion. This move by the department is in recognition that the digestion model has to be economically favorable for farmers to keep them in business. David Barstow invested several million dollars into his facility through a range of grants and loans, and forecasts it could take six years for the equipment to pay back on this investment.

Massachusetts is the third US state to implement a food waste ban, following in the footsteps of Vermont and Connecticut — although their legislation only applies to institutions generating more than two tons a week, versus Massachusetts' one, and are located within 20 miles of a food waste recycling facility, according to NPR.

Next door in New York, the State made $21 million available in January to help the state’s dairy farmers convert farm waste to energy; and in December, New York City announced a pilot program that will convert the thousands of pounds of food waste previously shipped to out-of-state landfills into biogas, which will heat up to 5,200 homes throughout the city and help curb roughly 90,000 metric tons of the state’s annual GHG emissions.

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