GUEST COLUMN: Transforming waste into sustenance

By Donna Barlow Casey and Justin Johnson

Last May, Vermont enacted legislation aimed at reducing the amount of solid waste the state sends to landfills while maximizing recycling and composting. The first of its kind in the country, Act 148 bans disposal of recyclables, yard waste and food residuals, and mandates the implementation of parallel recycling and composting programs statewide. This will enable us to significantly reduce the growth of our landfills, and enhance soil fertility through the application of compost.

In Vermont, approximately 160,000 tons of food waste is generated annually and only an estimated 20 percent is currently composted. Wasted food means wasted money for Vermont businesses and households, and unintended impacts to the environment through production, storage and transportation of food, and ultimate disposal of the waste in landfills.

Historically, the waste management system in Vermont has been driven by consumer convenience and large-scale operations. Food scraps have been mixed with garbage and carted to landfills, where their inherent value to replenish our soils is not only wasted but contributes to environmental degradation through emissions of greenhouse gases that are not captured at our operating landfills. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, up to 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and landfills account for the single largest human-made source of methane in the earth’s atmosphere.

Vermont is in a unique position to lead the nation in diverting 100 percent of our food waste from landfills by 2020—reducing our ecological impacts and investing in our local agriculture movement. Act 148’s requirement to remove food from the waste stream begins in 2014 for large generators and will be required for all generators in 2020. Solid waste haulers and facilities will be required to offer collection services for those materials. This phased-in approach offers a window of time in which critical information about the process can be reviewed by local elected officials, businesses, non-profits, entrepreneurs, farmers and consumers.

Fortunately, we have a solid infrastructure in place for the redirection of safe, wholesome excess food or leftovers; it occurs through churches, food shelves and pantries. Local partnerships between generators (such as grocers, schools and food processors) and farmers also prevent unwanted food from going to waste. Additionally, a number of commercial and on-farm compost operations across the state, plus community and backyard composting, also have a foothold. This infrastructure forms a base upon which to build and expand a thriving food and nutrient redistribution system in our state. This can encompass the social, environmental and economic impacts related to collecting food residuals of all types and redirecting them in keeping with the hierarchy established in the legislation of reducing at the source, feeding hungry people, feeding animals and seeking industrial and compost uses before disposal.

With ongoing analysis, inclusive communication, and continued vigilance, we can reduce waste and use waste that is generated to rejuvenate our soils for increased food production, an improved environment and a healthier world.

Justin Johnson is the Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Donna Barlow Casey is the Director of Vermont Technical College’s Center for Sustainable Practice.