STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A REGULATION from environmental regulators aims to reduce food waste in the state starting in November, moving toward the goal of reducing 30 percent of all waste disposal statewide by 2030, while bolstering Massachusetts’ green economy.
The Department of Environmental Protection is expanding its waste disposal bans by lowering the threshold on a commercial organic food waste ban and adding mattresses and textiles to the list of materials banned from disposal or transport for disposal in Massachusetts.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick implemented the commercial food waste waste ban in 2014, which regulated entities that produced at least one ton of food waste per week. Under the regulation, these businesses have to donate, compost or otherwise reuse the food, instead of sending it to landfills or incinerators.
The updated regulation will lower the threshold starting on Tuesday to businesses that produce at least a half ton of food waste per week.
About 2,000 businesses are subject to the current ban, said MassDEP deputy division director for solid waste John Fischer, and the new threshold will affect roughly 2,000 additional businesses.
The original ban applied mostly to large entities, such as supermarkets, hospitals, hotels, colleges, and food manufacturers, processors, and distributors, Fischer said.
The changes coming on Tuesday will mostly affect restaurants, with an estimated 1,300 restaurants that will be subject to the new ban. Other businesses newly subject to the regulation include smaller manufacturers, supermarkets, hotels, nursing homes and residential facilities, primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and correctional facilities.
The data used to prepare these estimates are from 2019, prior to the impact of COVID-19, so Fischer warned that the actual numbers of affected businesses may be lower than estimated.
“The restaurant sector has been heavily impacted by COVID, so we do think in the short term it will be smaller than that,” he said, since many restaurants have closed or shifted their business models to prioritize take-out, which produces less food waste.
On top of the positive environmental impact of creating less waste, Fischer said, there are two “really important” economic benefits of the regulation.
With limited solid waste disposal capacity in the state and throughout the Northeast, the regulations will divert food waste material from traditional disposal locations such as landfills and reduce the amount of waste that needs to be sent off for disposal in other states, he said. Additionally, waste bans attract new businesses to Massachusetts in the recycling, composting, and food donation industries.
“It innovates new small businesses, all of which tend to operate locally, create new jobs for Massachusetts and involve the community,” he said.
The nonprofit advocacy organization MASSPIRG had advocated for a total commercial food waste ban, said the organization’s executive director Janet Domenitz.
When asked why the state did not pursue a zero waste ban, Fischer said that Massachusetts does not currently have the ability statewide to collect all that food waste.
“We felt the half ton per week threshold would enable us to be able to continue to support it, and continue to ramp up the program that would work well both for the companies collecting that material and the businesses that had to divert the material,” he said.
The department will revisit the idea of a zero waste ban in 2025 to assess it then, Fischer said.
Though there will not be a total ban in place this November, MASSPIRG and other environmental organizations in the coalition Zero Waste Massachusetts, which is pushing to reduce waste disposal, showed support for the adjusted regulations as a step toward their goal.
“We need to move away from burying and burning, and towards reducing, reusing, and composting,” said Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation. “These new bans represent progress. Communities of color and low-income residents shoulder the brunt of waste disposal, and every step we take towards reducing disposal means a cleaner, more equitable Commonwealth.”
Domenitz said burning and burying items that can be recycled “is like throwing away our future.”
For businesses that will be newly affected by the food waste ban starting Tuesday, Fischer recommended visiting RecyclingWorks Massachusetts, a website that provides free assistance to businesses in Massachusetts on composting and waste reduction and a tool to help them estimate their food waste.
Elise Springuel, director of operations and community partnerships at the food donation organization Food Link, said the ban will affect smaller businesses, which lack access to resources bigger businesses may have such as on-site composting facilities or industrial organic waste partners.
“There’s a number of solutions out there for businesses when it comes to reducing their food waste — they can limit their source production and produce less food, there’s compost services, anaerobic digestion, partnering with farms and partnering with someone like us to get the food to folks who need it,” she said. “But other than source reduction and donation, all of those solutions often cost money. So, it’s a new budget item.”
Springuel said from an economic, social and environmental perspective, restaurants should look to food donation.
“We waste up to 40 percent of what we produce in this country, while we are simultaneously experiencing high rates of hunger in Massachusetts,” she said. “So, we’re working to solve one problem with another. We’re taking excess food and giving it to folks who need it. A lot of food waste is really good food, and we’re working to get that food to the right people.”
Food Link is based in Arlington and serves the Greater Boston area. Springuel said the nonprofit supports the MassDEP ban, and she thinks it is an important “incremental step toward reducing food waste,” and that “we have to build the infrastructure to support waste reduction if a ban is going to be successful.”
“There are a variety of new companies emerging to tackle the problem of food waste, from technology to help grocery stores do more predictive ordering to compost services that will help grow something new from your waste, or partnering with food donation organizations so what might have ended up in a landfill can now feed those who need it,” Springuel said.