It’s Thyme to Talk Organics.

Raise your hand if you know exactly what we mean when we talk about organics in the waste stream.   If you couldn’t raise your hand, don’t worry.  The term “organics” can be confusing and vague.  Depending on where you are, you might hear “leaf and yard waste” referred to as organics, or you may see organics referred to as “compost.”  So, what’s the dill?  The term organics, when used to characterize what we put in the trash, refers to food waste.  (And, no, it doesn’t have to be “certified organic” food waste.)

You might be surprised to know that food waste (aka organics) makes up 21.5% of what we throw away in MassachusettsAbout half of this food waste comes from homes and the other half comes from industrial, commercial, and institutional sources (think: restaurants, hospitals, universities, supermarkets, etc).  In fact, food waste is the number one material in both residential and commercial trash.

Another startling statistic:  According to Natural Resources Defense Council’s Save The Food campaign, forty percent of all food in America is wasted.

Say it Ain’t Cilantro!

All of this food waste (think: food scraps) and wasted food (think: good food that doesn’t get eaten) costs a lot of money to handle in the trash.  First, organics are heavy, and the price we pay for trash disposal is assessed on a per ton basis.  Second, there are the missed opportunity costs of not using organics for their highest beneficial use – as food for people and animals, as soil amendments created through composting, or energy produced through anaerobic digestion.

Aside from the financial costs of food waste there are huge environmental impacts associated with throwing it away. In Massachusetts, about one third of our trash is sent to landfills, where rotting food creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food in landfills also contributes to leachate (landfill wastewater) that percolates through landfills and erodes other materials in its path.  If leachate passes through a landfill, it contains some pretty nasty stuff that can pollute groundwater and local watersheds if not collected and sent for treatment at wastewater treatment plants.  Modern landfills are lined to protect groundwater and have been built with mitigation systems to manage methane and leachate, however, these mitigation strategies are last resort measures to keep our water and air clean.

Aside from what we separate for recycling, the rest of our trash (the romainder, if you will) is burned in waste-to-energy combustors.  The energy recovered from the combustion of our trash powers tens of thousands of homes.  However, due to its moisture content, food waste requires a lot of energy to burn, which negatively impacts the amount of energy produced by combustion.

You may be wondering at this point, what is Massachusetts doing to keep food out of landfills and waste combustors?  We are so glad you asked because we’re doing a lot, and we’re proud of it.

Rescue Food. Feed People.

With a grant from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Lovin’ Spoonfuls was able to purchase a truck which allowed this non-profit to rescue an additional 250,000 lbs (mostly fruits and vegetables) over the last six months.
Our first goal is to cut back on wasted food – to address that “40% of all food in America is wasted” statistic.  To do this, the MassDEP created a first-of-its-kind statewide organics waste ban that applies to large businesses (think: restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, college/university cafeterias).  The organics waste ban requires large businesses that dispose of one ton or more of this material per week to divert their wasted food and food scraps from the trash.  To that end, large grocery chains and restaurants are partnering with food rescue organizations such as Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a MassDEP grantee, to save food that will not be sold or otherwise used, and redistribute it to people in need.  Since 2014 (when the ban went into effect), over 145,000 tons of potentially wasted food have been rescued.
Repurpose Food. Feed Animals, Nourish the Soil, & Make Energy.
Our second goal is to reduce the amount of food scraps going to landfills and incinerators.  Businesses that must comply with the organics ban are separating food scraps and sending them to commercial  composting sites, anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities, or animal feed operations, of which there are 51 listed in Massachusetts (click here for a map of sites).  Animal feed operations either feed the food material to animals or process it into commercial animal feed. Commercial composting sites, often located on farms, use frequently turned windrows (elongated piles) to decompose the food waste into compost that can then be used to nourish depleted soil. AD facilities, commonly located on farms, mix organics with animal manure in large digesters to create methane that is burned to produce electricity that powers the farm and can be sold back to the grid.  The AD process also produces digestate, a material that can be land-applied at the farm and neighboring farms.  Another type of AD facility is a wastewater treatment plant.  Instead of animal manure, the food waste is mixed with wastewater.  It is then broken down, dewatered and pelletized to be used as fertilizer or soil amendment.
Investing Our Greens….
Our third goal is to make sure businesses have access to the technical assistance they need to separate organics from the waste stream.  Recycling Works in MA (recyclingworksma.com), funded by MassDEP, offers free help to businesses setting up organics/composting programs.  The Recycling Loan Fund has provided 20 loans ($5.28 million worth) for organics projects since 2000.  MassDEP’s Recycling Business Development Grants (RBDG) awarded 7 grants since 2016 to manage packaged food material, funding de-packaging equipment that makes it possible to process packaged food on a large scale and often still recycle the packaging.  And, through the Sustainable Materials Recovery Program, MassDEP has awarded $2.4 million in grants to municipalities to improve municipal composting facilities, provide drop-off equipment, carts, compost bins and technical assistance. When it comes to organics, we are investing our greens and working toward achieving our goal of reducing organics disposal by an additional 500,000 tons annually by 2030.
For more information on the State’s plans, check out the MassDEP Organics Study and Action Plan.
Now, Lettuce Get Personal
In 2019, Massachusetts residents generated about 154 pounds of food waste per person.  While we are making progress (it was 158 in 2018), that number is not small potatoes.  The good news is organic material is a waste stream we can all manage, if we harness nature’s inherent recycling system.  Here are some things individuals can do to minimize the food we waste and keep our food scraps out of the trash:
  • Eat your food. Take a look at Savethefood.com for tips and tools to help you prepare meals, calculate how much food you’ll need for a gathering, and store your food so it lasts longer.  They’ve also got a lot of great pictures of food that might just inspire you to eat your leftovers.
  • Compost at home.  (Check out this YouTube video: Turn Garbage into Gold Composting at Home to learn all about home composting!). Backyard compost bins and worm bins (aka vermiculture) can reduce or eliminate the amount of food scraps you put in your trash all year long.  What can be composted at home?
    • All vegetative food scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea
    • Yard waste – leaves, grass clippings, pruning, weeds, garden debris, brush, pine needles, etc.
    • Compostable paper – paper towels, napkins, plates, waxed paper, bakery tissues, tea bags, coffee filters, newspapers, paper bags, etc. — In other words, the majority of our organic household waste can be composted at home, even if you don’t have an outdoor space!
  • Subscribe to a food waste composting service and have your food waste picked up at your house.
  • Take it to a locally run composting collection site.  Check your municipality’s website to find out if there’s a food waste drop-off location.  Sometimes these are at your local transfer station.
  • If you’re lucky enough to live in one of these four communities (Cambridge, Hamilton, Wenham, Manchester) place it curbside in the organics container provided by your municipality.

Keep it Clean!

We wooden be Recycle Smart if we didn’t talk about the one thing you should NOT do with your food waste, and that’s put it in your recycling bin.  Food waste and recycling simply don’t go together like Mac n’ Cheese; in fact, food is among the top five contaminants reported by recycling sorting facilities.  Depending on the amount, leftover food and liquids in containers can ruin a lot of recyclables. They also attract vermin, cause terrible odors, increase the weight of recycling (and, therefore, processing costs), and frankly, it is really gross for workers to have to handle spoiled food.  So, remember to empty/rinse/wipe clean your containers before you put them in the recycling.

How clean is clean?  Our advice:  Use a spatula or knife to wipe your container clean and then shake around some soapy water.  Food shouldn’t be coating the sides of the container. 

Learn more about reducing wasted food:

Partner Spotlight: Town of Norwell

Town of Norwell’s video highlights common household items that can and cannot be recycled.

A Selectwoman for the Town of Norwell, Alison Demong is well aware of the current solid waste management challenges facing communities across Massachusetts, including our contaminated recycling stream. Participating in the Mass Municipal Association’s Energy and Environmental Policy Committee, Selectwoman Demong learned a new term: Aspirational Recycler which refers to a well-intended person who recycles an item because they want that item to be recyclable —even if it’s not. “I realized: I *AM* an Aspirational Recycler, and I’m contributing to the problem!” Selectwoman Demong exclaimed.  

Beyond turning to Recycle Smart MA to learn what items are and are not recyclable in Massachusetts, Selectwoman Demong felt this was a great opportunity to help educate other Aspirational Recyclers in the community. Partnering with the Norwell Recycling Committee and Norwell Spotlight TV, they decided to create a series of recycling Public Service Announcements featuring problematic items that do not belong in the recycling bin. “We recruited my 14 year old daughter and her friend, and we were off and running!” Demong told the Recycle Smart Team. As of February 2021, Norwell has produced two videos – the first of which highlights common household items that can and cannot be recycled and the second that takes a deeper dive into plastics. We love these short visual-only videos that help address recycling contamination, ensuring our recyclables get a another life and saving communities money. You can check out the videos here: Norwell Recycling PSA #1Norwell Recycling PSA #2: Plastics Edition

Kudos to the all star team that made these excellent recycling PSAs possible: Alison Demong, Norwell Board of Selectmen; Vicky Spillane, Chair of Norwell Recycling Committee; Evvy Demong, Norwell HS Student; Kelsey Warner, Norwell HS Student; Kristen Bates, Norwell Spotlight TV Producer; Ryan Fitch, Norwell Spotlight TV Videographer. We can’t wait to see what comes next!

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