CONCORD, N.H. — For Albert Diemand, it all began with a composting toilet.
Not everyone would have regarded the invention with wonder and fascination, but Diemand did. And it made him wonder, if there are sustainable ways to deal with organic waste, why aren’t they being utilized?
One barrier is that composting services for food waste aren’t readily available throughout New Hampshire. Even for residents and businesses that want to compost, it can be difficult to find a place that will take food waste off their hands.
So Diemand started Elm City Compost in 2018, a small composting business in Keene that he owns and operates, to try to address the problem.
The state recently passed a new law that aims to tackle the problem on a much bigger scale — requiring those who generate more than a ton of food waste per week to keep it out of the landfill, provided there’s a compost facility within 20 miles. Northeast Resource Recovery Association lists five municipalities with composting programs in the state on its website, five locations where people can drop off compost, and seven companies that pick up compost.
The law is meant to incentivize businesses to start offering sustainable alternatives to keep food waste out of landfills, like composting and anaerobic digestion, where bacteria break down organic matter and create energy that can be used as electricity.
“If you’re thinking about starting a facility that composts food waste or does anaerobic digestion of food waste, you want to know you’re going to have customers,” said Michael Wimsatt, who directs the waste management division of New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.
The state doesn’t have a clear picture of how many businesses will be impacted by the new law, or how much food waste it will keep out of landfills, according to Wimsatt, but they have until February 2025 when the law goes into effect to figure it out.
Diemand estimated that a ton of food waste is enough to fill up around 10 trash cans, or a one- to two-yard dumpster.
That’s way more than a typical household generates, and the new law would primarily apply to commercial facilities, like grocery stores, industrial food manufacturers and processors, restaurants and food service establishments, as well as some hotels and resorts. It could also apply to institutions, like universities and hospitals.
One thing that is clear to Wimsatt is the state doesn’t have much composting capacity right now, and the goal is to develop that in order to keep food waste out of landfills.
The law, which was passed as part of the state budget, also includes $1 million that will go into the state’s solid waste management fund. Wimsatt said $500,000 will go toward grants for businesses or municipalities that develop infrastructure to keep food waste out of landfills.
State Representative Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat, created the legislation after hearing from many people as the chair of a commission studying the state’s solid waste issue. She said the state looked at similar laws passed in Vermont and Massachusetts as an example.
“There were plenty of businesses — some that are just startups — that were interested in getting involved in the compost business, but in order to make the investment they have to be ensured they have a source of food waste,” she said.
She directed businesses to online food waste estimators that can calculate weight when trying to determine if the new law affects them.
Some environmentalists are celebrating the new law as a first step toward more composting.
“This legislation will play a really important role in jump-starting the industry and the infrastructure around commercial composting,” said Tom Irwin, the vice president and director of the New Hampshire Conservation Law Foundation.
“There are really important climate and waste management benefits to keeping food waste out of our outdoor disposal systems,” he said.
Food waste makes up as much as 25 percent of landfill waste right now, and as it breaks down it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. When food waste is composted, on the other hand, it becomes a useful product — soil. Plus, space in landfills is running out, so the less that goes into them, the better.
Irwin said New Hampshire has been on a “treadmill” of increasing landfill capacity in recent years, pointing to expansions at the Turnkey Landfill in Rochester and a proposal to increase the Bethlehem Landfill that CLF is challenging. The Waste Management Council sided with CLF that the expansion was unlawful, a decision Casella Waste Management, the company that owns the landfill, appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, where it is now pending, Irwin said.
A proposal to site a new landfill in Dalton sparked a statewide controversy over what would be the first new landfill in New England in a decade.
The law emerged in the wake of what became a statewide conversation about trash.
“It’s a great start, and I’m really glad that we have this,” said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of Northeast Resource Recovery Association. But Bissonnette predicts there will be challenges ahead when it comes to implementing the law.
“It’s really hard for systems to be put into place where there’s not going to be contamination of other sorts of material along with that food waste,” she said. That includes plastic packaging or disposable cutlery that might get tossed in the compost at the larger institutions like a hospital or university.
In those cases, Bissonnette said anaerobic digestion could be a better alternative — and it actually ranks higher on the Environmental Protection Agency’s food waste hierarchy than compost does.
Bissonnette isn’t expecting a big impact from the new law right away, but she said it lays the groundwork for companies looking to divert food waste in New Hampshire.
And she said the fact that New Hampshire is contributing $1 million to reduce waste and improve recycling and compost is “a big win.”
Lebanon is one community that is already accepting large quantities of compost. The city started a compost program last July, and they have since taken in around 1,200 tons of food, according to Erica Douglas who heads the city’s solid waste department. The city also has its own landfill.
“It’s a top priority to do everything we can to conserve landfill space,” Douglas said, which she called a fantastic but limited resource. The compost program helps them do that.
The compost has to get between 110 to 140 degrees before the materials start to break down.
“You have to be careful in the summertime with fires, so we take temperatures daily,” Douglas said. They’re also investing in thermometers with cellular capacities to make this easier to do with the large operation.
Residents have also taken to the program with excitement, she said.
“It’s been incredibly popular and it’s been very great to see how concerned both businesses and residents are that they’re doing things right — not bagging stuff in bags that they shouldn’t be,” Douglas said.
For his part, Diemand wavered on what the new law would mean for him and his business.
“I would love to let this business grow and find someone as passionate at food waste diversion and let them take the reins for a little while,” he said. He has other interests — like sustainable construction that he might pursue instead.
“The work itself of hauling and dumping can be hard on the body. While it is a great job and very exciting, it can wear you down.”