Could Massachusetts food waste ban be a road map for the rest of the country?

By Christian Science Monitor, Staff Writer, Jacob Axelrad, November 19, 2014


A ban implemented in Massachusetts in October says institutions that produce at least one ton of food waste per month cannot dispose of that waste in a landfill.

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On a Monday morning in the Boston University food court, students toss plates of food in bins with multicolored labels: green for recycling, black for landfill, and yellow for compostables.

“We capture as much food waste and organic material as we can,” says Sabrina Pashtan, Sustainability Coordinator at Boston University Dining Services. “That spans everything from scraps in the dining hall to leftover food and napkins in student meals to compostable plates in the food court to catered dinner for 500 people.”

All told, the university diverts around 800 tons of food waste each year, averaging out to about 15 tons of food waste per week, Ms. Pashtan says.

That came in handy when Massachusetts implemented a new law in October saying that any institution that produces at least one ton of food waste per week cannot put it in a landfill.

Americans throw away about 40 percent of their food – that’s $165 billion worth of food waste feeding landfills each year, according to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Because many landfills are reaching capacity and are heavy contributors of greenhouse gases – the Environmental Protection Agency ranks them as the third largest source of methane gas emissions in the US – some policymakers are looking for alternatives.

In recent years, a small handful of US cities and states have passed laws aimed at reducing the amount of food waste rotting in landfills. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to ban commercial food waste from landfills. Vermont followed suit the following year. Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., also have commercial food waste bans. A similar law will go into effect in New York City on July 1, 2015.

The Massachusetts law is part of a broader statewide goal to reduce solid waste by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The state disposed of 4.9 million tons of solid waste in 2011, about 17 percent of which was food waste, according to the most recent data provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Massachusetts’s efforts could potentially become a road map for the rest of the nation, says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist for the NRDC and author of the 2012 report. Diverting food scraps from landfills to composters not only reduces greenhouse gasses given off by rotting food, but also recycles food nutrients into future crops.

However, the Massachusetts ban does not specify where the waste must go. And for many, this question is the crux of the matter.

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