Robin Brett Wechsler often had thought about composting as a way to cut down on food waste, but it seemed too complicated and time-consuming.
So, when the town of Wellesley announced a food waste drop-off pilot program last fall, it seemed like the perfect time for her family to start setting aside the watermelon rinds, apple cores, and chicken bones.
“I was excited,’’ she said. “This was something we could do to reduce waste like composting but easier for us, and we don’t have to manage the stuff that’s outside.’’
About 300 residents signed up for the program in the fall, and another 275 this spring. Participants received a free starter kit funded through a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that included a countertop bucket, compostable bag liners, and a container for transporting the waste to the Recycling and Disposal Facility.
The food waste is then sent to an anaerobic digester where it’s turned into biogas, said Marybeth Martello, Wellesley’s sustainable energy administrator. Martello said the program has been a big hit with residents and may soon be expanded.
“Dealing with food waste is a great nonpolarizing process,’’ she said. “It’s not smart to be wasting food because we’re wasting resources and money.’’
After years of encouraging residents to recycle their paper, plastic, bottles, and cans, more cities and towns are turning their attention to the next boulder in the waste stream: leftover food.
State environmental officials said there is a growing interest in creating residential programs for composting or food waste diversion since commercial restrictions went into effect in 2014.
The Department of Environmental Protection banned the disposal of commercial organic wastes by businesses and institutions that dispose of 1 ton or more of these materials per week. The ban is one of the agency’s initiatives for diverting at least 35 percent of all food waste from disposal statewide by 2020.
MassDEP estimates that food waste accounts for more than 25 percent of the waste stream in Massachusetts after recycling, or more than 1 million tons per year. The agency has been supporting municipal food waste collection programs by providing grants to support curbside and food waste drop-off programs or at-home composting.
About 27 municipalities offer food waste drop-off programs and 10 municipalities provide curbside programs for food waste collection, where the material collected is sent to commercial compost facilities, according to MassDEP.
Kay Mol, assistant to the director of the Manchester-by-the-Sea Department of Public Works, said the town has been offering curbside composting since 2014. She said the countertop buckets and wheeled bins were purchased through a state grant and given to each household. Once a week, the food waste is picked up by Gloucester-based Black Earth Compost.
The waste goes to the town’s compost site, where it is mixed with leaves, wood pulp, and yard waste, Mol said. She said residents are allowed to collect and use the finished compost for free.
“It’s a small program but it’s growing,’’ Mol said. “The biggest negative that people use is the ‘ick factor.’ But you’re throwing it away anyway. It either sits in your trash can all week or this bin.’’
Mol said having a curbside option is crucial because people don’t want to put the food waste in their car and risk having it spill.
Many communities don’t offer curbside or drop-off programs but do provide composting bins. Debbie Sullivan, the recycling coordinator in Marshfield, said the town sells Earth Machines bins so homeowners can compost at home. She said they sell about 40 or 50 a year ($45 for residents).
In March, Newton launched a curbside organic collection pilot program with an emphasis on food waste. During the four-month pilot program, food waste was collected from 200 households in the Auburndale/West Newton area. The material was collected by a contracted private hauler and taken to a commercial composting facility.
City officials said they hope to plan a larger, longer pilot program in 2019, offering curbside collection to more households.
In Wellesley, the pilot food diversion program is just one of many the town has initiated to cut down on food waste.
Martello said the schools have played a big role in reducing waste. She said they set up a “share table’’ where uneaten food such as fruit and packaged food items are set aside to be taken to a food pantry.
Also, food that’s prepared in the kitchen and not served, such as rice or pasta, is frozen and picked up by the Food for Free. The nonprofit repackages the food into single-serve containers and distributes it to those in need.
The town later partnered with local colleges, which now also donate their unused food. Some of the food is going directly back to students in need at MassBay Community College in Wellesley Hills.
“All that food was going in the trash,’’ Martello said. “We’re projecting that the network will be able to donate 20,000 meals over a year’s time.’’
Martello said the next challenge is collecting food waste in the schools that is not edible and keeping that from the landfill. She said a pilot program is in the works and could launch in the fall.
“It’s a waste of resources that people can relate to and agree it’s damaging,’’ she said. “We’re wasting food while people are going hungry.’’Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.