Massachusetts’ new composting rules: What they really mean
How a regulation designed to keep food waste out of landfills will affect restaurants, supermarkets, and you.
THE BREAKFAST RUSH hits City Table, the main eatery in Boston’s Lenox Hotel, one late spring morning. In the busy kitchen, cooks and servers marshal perfect plates of eggs Benedict, French toast, and waffles topped with whipped cream and berries. Across a stainless steel expanse of countertop, the dishes return smeared with egg, half-eaten pancakes, toast crusts, and abandoned asparagus. Just a few weeks earlier, according to Scot Hopps, director of sustainability at the Lenox, these leavings would have been tossed into the trash, sent down a metal chute to a back alley compactor, and hauled to a landfill.
In early May, however, the Lenox adopted a new routine, one that starting the first week of October will play out statewide: sorting food waste into green bins wedged next to black containers for trash and blue for recycling. As of Oct. 1, Massachusetts has banned any establishment that creates a ton or more of food waste per week from sending as much as a carrot peel to the state’s rapidly dwindling available landfills. Despite a recycling rate topping 40 percent, Massachusetts businesses and households still toss about 6.5 million tons of garbage every year — enough to fill up Fenway Park 74 times. Most of it is piled into a couple dozen landfills where it slowly decomposes, the organic stuff from kitchens and yards spewing the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, or hauled to a handful of waste-to-energy incinerators where it is burned to create electricity.
So-called compostable organics make up more than 25 percent of the state’s commercial and household waste, and the goal of the new regulation is to divert much of that away from landfills. Where will it go? To composting facilities and energy plants that run on biogas (made primarily of methane) — places where it can actually be put to use.
Two other states, Vermont and Connecticut, recently passed similar restrictions for businesses, and a small number of municipalities in North America require households to compost. Massachusetts’s ban has been years in the making, and its potential upsides are big — less need for new landfills, savings on disposal costs, a clean energy source, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a blossoming of new businesses and jobs. Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls the law “one of those rare ideas that solves multiple problems at once.” (A former commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, he has long been a champion of the ban.)
But the challenges are big, too. Originally scheduled to begin in July, the ban was postponed until October to give the institutions affected more time to prepare. David W. Cash, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, estimated in June that “more than half” of the 1,700 or so businesses subject to the regulation had a plan to comply. Ultimately, success will require simultaneous overhauls on both ends of the equation — hotels, restaurant chains, universities, hospitals, supermarkets, and food processors and wholesalers will need to create efficient, clean, and cost-effective ways to keep food out of the trash, and the state must find enough alternative destinations for what its experts say will amount to nearly half a million tons of organic waste annually. This year, the race has been on to sort it all out.
IN EARLY 2014, the Department of Environmental Protection sent out a letter explaining the new regulation. It included a referral to food-waste experts at a Pittsfield nonprofit called the Center for EcoTechnology, which has been helping businesses implement environmentally friendly practices for almost four decades. According to Heather Billings, a green business specialist there, keeping food out of the trash is often cost-neutral and can even save businesses money. That’s because landfill scarcity in Massachusetts makes for some of the nation’s highest dumping fees, between $75 and $90 per ton. The fees at compost or biogas facilities are often about 20 percent lower, because rotting food is the raw material for their marketable products.
Of course, the smaller fees don’t amount to much savings for businesses diverting only a ton of food waste a week, especially with a second hauler’s charge included. However, “if you’re taking a ton of food waste out of your trash every week, then you should be able to extend the time between hauls,” says Billings. Businesses with more food waste will save more money, of course. For example, she says, supermarkets can save a few thousand dollars a year per location through lowering disposal and hauling charges and by reducing waste, a natural side effect of asking workers to notice what they’re throwing away where.
Cost is just one issue for institutions switching to composting, however, and probably not the thorniest. At schools, hospitals, and other places serving the public, the bigger challenge is education.
For the last four years, the New England Aquarium has composted the leftover fish and vegetables it feeds the creatures in its care, along with waste from prep work done in its kitchen. Though exempt from the state’s edict because it doesn’t create enough organic waste, the aquarium still sees composting as matching its mission, says Matthew King, the aquarium’s food service director. It has just begun asking its hundreds of thousands of yearly cafe visitors to sort out what’s compostable on their own lunch trays.
In 2013, the aquarium sent 25 tons to be composted, but this year King wants to double the number. That will take some doing, he says. “The sorting is easy to control with our staff, because you have a limited number of people to train,” he says. “With the public, it’s like you have to train every one of them.”
At a cooler near the register, he grabs a plastic cup of orange juice. The cup is compostable, made of a biodegradable plastic derived from cornstarch. The nearby fruit-salad bowl is made of the same stuff, and there are forks, knives, and spoons made from potato starch. But the ketchup and mustard are in non-compostable plastic squeeze packs.
Besides switching over to bulk condiments and culling non-compostable plastics, the aquarium may station a staffer or volunteer by its waste barrels at peak hours to explain the new system, “like a docent for trash,” King says. And he’s considering changing the “trash” signs to “landfill” — “just so people know where it’s going.”
THE QUESTION OF where the diverted organic waste will go is a huge one. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, total capacity of the currently licensed composting and anaerobic digestion facilities in Massachusetts is between 200,000 and 250,000 tons, about half the amount expected when the new ban goes into effect, and much of that is taken up by current customers. It’s hard to know exactly how much more capacity will be needed, though, because some institutions, including hospitals and grocery chains, say they’ll spring for pricey dehydrators and digesters that can reduce food waste volumes by up to 90 percent, and others will send food waste to animal-feed operations, which are unlicensed and so untracked by the state.
About 75 percent of the state’s licensed facilities for handling food waste use traditional composting. Massive piles of leaves, grass clippings, and rotting food slowly decompose into an earthy, nutrient-rich product sold to farms, garden stores, and households. In some cases, the process is sped up by mixing it in a giant rotating drum. But the department is also reviewing several proposals for anaerobic digesters — giant sealed tanks that capture gas created by rotting food and manure and use it to power generators that crank out electricity.
One of the first such digesters in Massachusetts started up in 2012, on Jordan Dairy Farms in Rutland. One recent morning, a 9,000-gallon tanker truck rumbled up a service road, past calves lolling under white plastic shelters, heading to two towering white tanks where methane gas is harnessed and used to power a 500-kilowatt generator. About 4 percent of the electricity created here is used to power the farm and 16 percent for the digester itself. The rest is transferred to the local power company and converted into energy credits.
Arriving at the smaller, 50,000-gallon tank, the driver hops from the cab, hooks a large green hose to a steel fitting, and starts pumping in a soup of liquid leftovers from Home Market Foods of Norwood, a manufacturer of meatballs and frozen dinners. Asked what precisely he’s delivering, the driver shrugs. But there’s no mystery about where it’s going. Gradually, the waste will be piped into the larger tank and mixed with cow manure (the 300 cows on the farm make about 6,000 gallons of it every 24 hours). But food waste is far more potent, and the more caloric the better. “We get a load of ice cream every couple weeks from Hood. And that stuff’s like rocket fuel,” says Randy Jordan, who runs the fifth-generation farm with his brother, Brian.
Not far from the generator is a wide blue tank and a murky lagoon, both of which contain the other byproduct of anaerobic digestion — liquid fertilizer, which is spread on fields that grow the corn and hay the cows eat. Also nearby is a metal pipe that burns a flare when the digester is making more gas than the generator can handle. Randy Jordan hates to see it lit.
“It’s like burning hundred-dollar bills,” he says. The digester is run by a business separate from the farm called AGreen Energy (Jordan is a partner) and in partnership with Casella Organics, which handles day-to-day operations, including deliveries. In June, a second digester started up at Barstow’s Longview Farm, another dairy producer, in Hadley; the company has plans for two more.
In Europe, where the biogas industry is supported by (some say dependent on) government subsidies, there are about 10,000 anaerobic digesters fueling electric generators. By comparison, there are only 1,200 or so in the United States, according to Paul Sellew, founder and chairman of Waltham-based Harvest Power. The US biogas industry is still in its infancy, he says, which makes it seem risky to both banks and permitting authorities. Sellew’s company operates three large-scale digesters, none in Massachusetts. “We’re working on a couple,” says Sellew. “It doesn’t happen as fast as we’d like, because of the regulations in place. There are a lot of local rules and boards in this state.” Massachusetts has recently announced several programs to kick-start the business, including offering grants and low-interest loans, as well as access to land at two state prisons.
For now, the biggest biogas production program is planned for Deer Island, home to 12 egg-shaped digesters that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority uses to break down sewage sludge. In a pilot that was initially set to begin in July, one of the digesters would be fed up to 100 tons of food waste a day in addition to the sludge. Once delivery kinks are worked out, the facility could take in 500 tons of food waste every day and convert it to energy.
“We have a huge percentage of the anaerobic digestion capacity in the state,” says Fred Laskey, the MWRA’s executive director. “If we can make it work, it could be a blockbuster.”
Making it work, however, has turned out to be harder than anticipated. While the long-term plan had always been to barge food waste over to Deer Island from Charlestown (after it was ground into a pumpable slurry), the waste for the pilot program was to be trucked through the town of Winthrop, up to seven tanker trucks a day, five days a week. In town meetings about the project this spring, Winthrop residents, including Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, cried foul. So the authority is trying to speed up the infrastructure and permitting needed to barge the food waste. Meanwhile, the pilot program is on hold.
Longtime composting advocate Kimmell still predicts that the rollout will be smooth and that it is the beginning of an even bigger change. “This is going to work, and it’s going to save people money,” he says. “Over time, it will filter down to smaller businesses and then to households.” It will have to, if Massachusetts is to meet its target of cutting landfill-bound waste by 80 percent by mid-century.
Back at the Lenox, Scot Hopps is likewise optimistic. His preliminary numbers indicate that by composting, the hotel has already cut what it sends to landfills by 27 percent. “It’s still early on, and there’s still a decent list of why this shouldn’t work,” says Hopps. “But we’re committed.”