Out of the trash, saving cash: How food waste could transform New England's garbage
This story is part of special Earth Week coverage from the New England News Collaborative on how climate change is affecting food systems in our region.
Tucked away inside a trash facility in central Connecticut is a pile of nondescript orange and green plastic bags. To the untrained eye, the mound of rotting waste looks like all the other trash piled up here, but Jack Perry, one of the owners of HQ Dumpsters & Recycling, said this trash is special.
“The orange bags are just straight trash, and the green bags are the food waste,” he said.
Through the green plastic we see fruit peels and rotting vegetables. It’s all part of a big experiment.
“What’s happening here is we have a pilot program,” Perry said, “to be able to try to divert organic waste out of the waste stream.”
Right now, about 1,000 households in Meriden are working with the state to try out a municipal food waste recycling program. The latest federal data show that more food reached landfills and combustion facilities than any other material in our everyday trash. And while that wasted food is expensive to get rid of, it can also drive up methane and carbon emissions.
“What we’re throwing away in our garbage includes a lot of really valuable material,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The food scraps that we’re generating every year is about 40 percent of the waste stream that’s going to waste-to-energy facilities and to landfills.”
Dykes said landfills in the region are filling up. And a major trash-to-energy facility in Hartford that takes in waste from dozens of area towns will soon be closing. That means waste could soon be put on a truck or train and hauled to landfills in the Midwest.
“That’s pushing up the cost of managing our waste,” Dykes said, “which is straining municipal budgets, and it’s increasing our cost of living.”
So the idea in Meriden is simple: Turn old food into a way to save money, versus losing it.
Residents participating in the pilot toss organics in one bag and regular trash in another. But both bags go in the same can wheeled out to the curb. It’s collected, sorted and ultimately sent to a nearby anaerobic digester – which will turn it into electrical power and compost.
“It’s good for the environment. It’s also good for our tax dollars,” said Tim Coon, Meriden’s city manager. “I think people who participate in this really do feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
Mining the ‘enormous amount of material’ in New England’s food waste
Domingo Medina has spent a lot of time biking around New Haven hauling old food scraps. He runs Peels & Wheels Composting. Since 2014, his business has collected old food in New Haven on bicycle trailers and returned compost to subscribing residents. He also donates compost to community gardens.
“Organic residues are a resource, it’s not waste,” Medina said. “It’s something that we can recycle.”
“When we decide to put it in the trash and throw it away, we’re burning and creating a lot of atmospheric pollution that contributes to climate change,” Medina said.
In addition to Medina’s service, other subscription-based composting companies have been popping up in Connecticut.
But the Meriden pilot program is Connecticut’s stab at making composting a mainstream part of curbside garbage disposal – just like trash and recycling pickups.
Medina said that on average, households in his collection area “produce between 8 to 10 pounds of food scraps per week.”
Steve Lisauskas, vice president at Waste Zero, which is helping Meriden and the state implement and track the pilot program, said participating residents in that town were tossing out about the same amount of organics that Medina has seen in New Haven.
“It’s about 8 pounds per household per week,” Lisauskas said. “Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you scale that across a city or an entire state, it becomes an enormous amount of material.”
While Connecticut is just beginning its journey to implement citywide composting programs, other parts of New England are further along.
About 120 miles northeast, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is entering into year five of a citywide curbside composting program. Michael Orr, the city’s recycling director, said about 7 tons of food scraps are collected each day.
And the cost savings are big.
“We pay about $109 per ton for trash whereas compost costs about $65 per ton,” Orr said. “Definitely every ton that we collect and compost – that’s not in the trash – is saving us money.”
And it’s not just cities recycling food waste. Several states now have laws that require it, said David Cash, the regional administrator for EPA New England and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
“In my time in Massachusetts, we – as now four states have done in New England – we put in place a ban on organics, including food, from landfills,” Cash said.
In Massachusetts, those statewide bans impact big food producers. Think restaurants, cafeterias and hospitals. They’re all barred from sending old food to landfills. In November, those rules will get stricter, expanding the law’s reach to some smaller restaurants and even some school cafeterias.
Meanwhile, Vermont has gone even further, essentially banning businesses and residents from putting old food in the trash and landfills.
Christine Beling, with EPA New England, said the region is recognizing that food waste has value.
“Wasted food or surplus food certainly has value for people and animals. But true food waste also has value for energy and soil amendments,” Beling said.
New Hampshire and Maine don’t yet have any statewide organic waste bans.
But that doesn’t mean demand isn’t there. In 2012, Tyler Frank began his curbside composting business, Garbage to Garden, in Portland, Maine. Speaking outside his headquarters in Portland, he said he quickly signed up 17 people.
“From there, I had a tiger by the tail. It was a few hundred people signing up every month,” Frank said.
Today, his business operates in Maine and Massachusetts, collecting food scraps and returning compost to 15,000 weekly subscribers.
He said the company processes about 20 tons of food waste each day.
“That’s residential and commercial,” Frank said. “We also service a lot of businesses, restaurants – school districts … we’re really trying to make composting accessible in all walks of life.”
He said handling food waste locally cuts costs for towns and helps protect the climate.
“It’s a really concrete action that an individual can take to make a difference,” Frank said.
Because when it comes to recycling old food, he said, “a little, plus a little, plus a little is definitely a lot.”
Connecticut Public Radio’s Ryan Caron King and Maine Public Radio’s Fred Bever contributed to this report.
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