HAVERHILL — Five years ago, Massachusetts launched the nation’s most ambitious effort to curb commercial food waste, banning universities, hospitals, and large businesses from sending discarded food to landfills.
But critics like John Hanselman, who built a business based on the ban, say that state regulators have failed to enforce the restrictions, leading to a widespread lack of compliance.
Hanselman’s company invested $70 million to build five high-tech plants to convert food waste — a significant source of carbon emissions — into electricity, heat, and fertilizer. But now his company is scrounging to find a sufficient amount of waste for the plants.
“The ban, so far, has been a failure,” said Hanselman, chief executive of Vanguard Renewables in Wellesley. “Without teeth behind the regulations, a lot of folks are just doing the easy thing and throwing the food out in the garbage.”
The ban, which applies to institutions that produce more than a ton of food waste a week, sought to reduce the amount of food waste sent to incinerators and landfills. It was also considered a major step to increase recycling and curb emissions.
But with companies sidestepping the ban, the company’s plants have been starved for supply.
“We’re scavenging to get enough food waste into our digesters,” Hanselman said.
One recent afternoon, Hanselman drove to the back of a local supermarket, a big-box store, and a cold-storage company, searching for industrial-sized containers of discarded food. He didn’t find a single one.
His plants, known as anaerobic digesters, were designed to process 500 tons of waste a day, but they’re taking in less than 75 percent of that amount.
With more than 1.3 million tons of food waste produced each year in Massachusetts, and state officials suggesting the ban would be extended to smaller companies over time, Vanguard Renewables had planned to build another five plants, starting next year.
But with an insufficient amount of food scraps, the company’s investors have balked at financing the plan.
“They’re concerned that the state isn’t doing its part,” Hanselman said. “Many folks won’t divert unless there’s a penalty.”
Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection have promoted the ban, but enforcement has been spotty, records show.
Over the past five years, the department has conducted an average of 164 annual inspections — a fraction of the 1,700 entities subject to the ban — and issued just 39 notices of noncompliance. In all, the department has issued just three fines, amounting to a total of less than $5,000.
And with staffing at roughly half the level it was in 2000, the department has just four employees who are assigned to enforce the ban, among their other responsibilities.
State officials say the regulations have helped increase food recycling rates and reduce the release of methane, which is among the most potent greenhouse gases. About 280,000 tons of waste a year is now diverted from landfills and incinerators, though that’s just 20 percent of the total disposed. Before the ban, which took effect in 2014, about 100,000 tons were diverted, mainly to compost facilities.
“When MassDEP first rolled out the food waste ban, the agency prioritized working with companies to educate them about the ban by providing technical and compliance assistance instead of formal notices of non-compliance,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the department, noting that the state could issue fines for as much as $25,000 for failing to comply with the ban.
The department plans to hire another staffer this year whose job will include enforcing the ban, he added.
As part of its plan to update the state’s solid waste master plan for the coming decade, the state will also consider reducing the threshold of the ban to less than a ton a week, he said.
“The department remains committed to helping the Commonwealth become more sustainable and achieve waste-reduction goals,” Coletta said.
But environmental advocates say the state should be doing much more, noting that food waste takes up dwindling landfill space. In 2012, the state’s landfills had about 2.1 million tons of capacity; by 2022, environmental officials predict that just 500,000 tons will remain.
A major reason is that recycling efforts have fallen short. In 2010, officials set a goal of reducing the state’s total trash stream to 4.5 million tons a year by 2020. But in 2017 the state produced 5.7 million tons — nearly 300,000 tons more than in 2010.
“The state isn’t going to hit its goals and should immediately lower the threshold, which would also incentivize more digesters to be built,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Eventually, we should be banning all food waste.”
There are now nine digesters in Massachusetts, with one under construction. Sending food to a digester or a compost facility typically costs a third to a half of sending trash to landfills, which can cost more than $100 a ton. Prices for sending waste to landfills have surged as space has declined.
“The economics should drive this,” said Ben Harvey, president of E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough, one of the state’s largest waste haulers. When the ban began, his trucks had few places to take the food waste; now, they are not collecting enough to feed the digesters.
The lack of inspections is a problem, he said, but companies need to understand the benefits of diverting their food waste, especially as tipping fees increase at landfills.
Some companies have gotten the message. At Whole Foods, which received a notice of noncompliance in 2017 after inspectors found a violation at its store in Hingham, the company has refined its operations and improved training for its staff.
Now, 17 of the company’s 32 stores in Massachusetts have special compactors and tanks that store the food waste and contain the stench until it’s hauled away. Company officials say they occasionally audit their trash to ensure they’re complying with the rules.
“Anything we can divert from the trash saves us money,” said Karen Franczyk, the company’s sustainable facilities coordinator.
Other companies are less enthusiastic about the ban.
At C-F Cold Storage in Haverhill, which distributes yogurt and other foods that have to be disposed of when they exceed their expiration date, Costas Flessas, the owner, views the rules as a burden and as unfairly singling out businesses.
The extra work to separate food waste creates logistical problems and requires different haulers than those who collect his trash, he said.
“It’s ridiculous and wrong,” said Flessas, whose company was also cited for failing to comply with the ban. “It’s overregulation.”
For Hanselman, the hope is that the state will ultimately require or encourage individuals to also remove their food waste from the trash, as municipalities such as Cambridge already do. That could substantially increase the amount of food scraps going to the digesters, and persuade his investors to finance the additional plants.
On a recent afternoon at Crescent Farms, where last fall his company completed construction on one of its newest digesters, Hanselman explained how manure from the dairy farm’s cattle is used to break down tons of food waste into a slurry that is churned through pipes and tanks.
After about a month, the digesters extract methane from the waste, which is used to generate electricity. Other byproducts create heat and fertilizer for the farm.
“The state should be making it easier for everyone to be doing this,” he said.