At Mike’s Store and Deli in Hartland, customers can order up specialty sandwiches, warm meals, and food off the grill, plus a coffee or local craft beer or wine to round out the meal. But what customers don’t see is a compost bucket — two of them, actually, one in the store’s kitchen and the other in the deli. A third bucket saves food for pigs at nearby farms.
“It’s easiest for staff to compost if you keep a bucket accessible,” says store shift leader Rowan Kelly. Staff also need to remember what goes to the pigs and what goes in the compost bin. The pigs get leftover meats, veggies and bread. But food waste that isn’t edible for pigs, like egg shells and bacon grease, goes into a compost bin. The compost gets picked up by a local hauler and taken to a composting facility. Outside the store, a bin of sawdust is next to the compost bin so that staff can sprinkle some on to the compost to help reduce the smell.
At first, composting didn’t save the store and deli any money, in fact it was more expensive to pay a hauler to pick it up separately than it was to throw it in the trash. But diverting food waste was part of an overall waste reduction program at the business. And now that the amount of trash has reduced because food waste is being sent elsewhere, saving money on trash disposal has outweighed the cost for composting.
Mike’s Store and Deli are ahead of the curve when it comes to composting, and soon everyone in Vermont will be required to keep food waste out of their trash. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law, also known as Act 148, which bans three major categories of materials from Vermonters’ trash bins: recyclables such as plastic, cardboard and paper; leaves, yard debris and clean wood; and food scraps. The law has been phased in since 2014, and goes into full effect on July 1, 2020, after which time it will apply to everyone in Vermont, including businesses, homeowners and renters, who will all be required to keep food scraps out of their trash.
Food waste can be donated to food rescue programs like the Vermont Foodbank if the food is still edible, it can be sent to farms to be used as animal feed, or it can be composted on-site or at a commercial facility, of which there are a growing number around the state.
The law also provides a degree of flexibility. It allows haulers and facilities to request exemptions or variances from some collection requirements. Businesses can dispose of a “de minimus” amount of food waste if they have an active composting program in place. And residents who compost at home can throw meat and bones in the trash — even after the 2020 food scrap ban is in effect.
But why does the state care where our food waste goes?
“There are many good reasons for keeping food waste out of the landfill, and that’s why it was voted for unanimously,” says Emma Stuhl, who works with the Solid Waste Program within the Vermont Department of Environmental Conversation, a department within the Agency of Natural Resources. First, she explains, a lot of perfectly good food was going into the trash. Now, since the inception of this law, the amount of food being diverted to the Foodbank has tripled.
Diverting food waste from the landfill is also a solution for climate change, Emma continues. When food scraps get buried under the ground at the landfill, they break down in a way that releases methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane is a highly potent green house gas that is more than 20 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When food scraps are composted, however, a host of organisms break down the material and instead release carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas, just like methane, it is a less harmful one. So, composting food waste, compared to landfilling it, leads to an overall reduction in warming from greenhouse gases.
Putting food scraps into the landfill is also a land-use issue, points out Emma. As much as one-quarter of trash in homes is food scraps, so there is a significant opportunity to take this material out of the landfills.
Plus, “people don’t really like living next to landfills,” says Emma. “They’re not a great use of space. [At ANR] we recognize that space is precious and we need to use it wisely.”
This law has led to new and expanding businesses in the green economy as well, like compost haulers and facilities. Whether the diverted food waste is going to feeding people or animals or making compost, which helps Vermont grow more food, it is all supporting new and expanding businesses that recycle, reduce waste, or feed us.
“Many of the benefits of reducing food waste going into the landfill align with ANR’s goals of clean land, air and water,” says Stuhl.
While Vermont has been very forward thinking with this law compared to other states, we still have room for improvement. Josh Kelly, also with DEC, says Vermont currently hovers around a 34 percent recycling rate, including composting. “We have a goal of fifty percent,” he explains. The Universal Recycling Law is meant to move the dial in that direction.
The priority for the state is education and outreach, and less so enforcement. A complaint about a business not diverting food scraps, for example, would first result in a visit from DEC staff to educate the owners and staff about ways to reduce food waste going into the trash stream. But repeated complaints and visits could result in a fine, says Josh.
The overall intention of the law appears to be doing the right thing for our environment, economy and communities. “I don’t know if our customers even know we compost,” says Rowan from her store in Hartland. “But it matters to the community, it matters to the farms that get food for their pigs.”