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Law targets food wastes

Vermont plans major expansion of composting



Contributing writer

Tucked away from the rows of groceries at the Rutland Area Food Co-op are five-gallon buckets with lids, filled with food scraps that most customers wouldn’t want to take home.

But those buckets move out the door faster than some of the foodstuffs on the co-op’s shelves. The co-op’s food wastes are highly prized by local gardeners who compost the scraps to make fertilizer. There’s even a waiting list of gardeners wanting food wastes.

“There are one or two who have seniority,” explained Laura Daubenspeck, the co-op’s bulk department manager.

In the next few years, many Vermont businesses and residents will be thinking of similar ideas for what to do with their food scraps. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a new waste-reduction law in June that will require Vermonters to divert all organic material -- including food waste, lawn clippings and leaves -- from the state’s landfills by 2020.

The new law sets the stage for the most aggressive composting effort in the country, and supporters say it will cut Vermont’s carbon emissions dramatically while giving a boost to farming and green-industry jobs.

Vermont already has an established, thriving composting industry, but experts say it will take some work to meet the new law’s goals.

“It won’t be a huge learning curve, but there will be some obstacles,” said Deane Wilson, the waste reduction manager for the Rutland County Solid Waste District.

The new law’s requirements will take effect in phases, covering businesses first before being expanded to cover homes in 2020.

The first step will be to target the state’s largest organic waste producers. The law will require institutions that produce more than 104 tons of organic waste annually to have composting programs in place by 2014, but only if there is a compost facility within 20 miles of the institution.

Each year, the bar will be lowered to take in smaller producers of organic waste, down to producers of 18 tons per year of waste by 2017. By 2020, all businesses, institutions and homes will be required to compost, regardless of their proximity to a composting facility.

The law will require the state’s larger municipalities to ramp up or, in some cases, begin their composting efforts.

Rutland County, for example, used to have a composting program for local residents, but it was shuttered because of a contractor’s labor problems and a lack of funds for equipment, Wilson said.

Now larger municipalities will have to decide whether to have curbside pickup or collect organic wastes at a central facility like a transfer station. People in rural areas most likely will opt for backyard composting over pick-up services.

Wilson said legislators were smart to phase in the composting requirements.

“It’s giving us time to think about how we are going to do it,” he said.

Building on a base

The state’s infrastructure for composting will have to expand to meet the increased flow of waste, said James McSweeney of the Highfields Center for Composting, a nonprofit group based in Hardwick. The center makes its own compost and helps communities and businesses with practical and technical issues related to composting.

The state currently has eight truck routes to pick up compost from major institutions like hospitals and schools. McSweeney estimates those routes capture about 30 percent of the state’s institutional organic waste. That may not seem like much, but it actually is one of the higher composting rates in the nation, and it gives the state a good base from which to expand, he said.

“That’s a pretty good position to be in right now,” McSweeney said.

The new law will require construction or expansion of new composting facilities to accommodate the increased flow, and finding sites for such facilities isn’t always easy.

The town of Shaftsbury, for example, imposed a moratorium last year on the construction of composting facilities after being approached by TAM Inc., a waste management company that was interested in setting up a composting operation in the town. TAM Inc. recently reached an agreement with Bennington to locate the facility near that town’s transfer station instead.

McSweeney said businesses and municipalities will need a lot of education and support if they are going to ramp up their composting efforts.

Imagine a ski resort, he suggested. For years, he said, the resort’s management thought of food scraps as trash and created the infrastructure to support that way of thinking, with Dumpsters and regular trash pick-ups.

“The landfill was the management system of that,” McSweeney said. “Now it is going to take a paradigm shift.”

But it’s a shift worth making, he added.

Composting is a thriving industry in Vermont and is capable of producing many more jobs than would be lost in traditional waste management, McSweeney said. Organic farmers and small-scale gardeners love to use compost as a natural fertilizer, and every major composter in the state is sold out for the summer, McSweeney said. Highfields exports its compost across the country.

Michael Virga, the executive director of the U.S. Composting Council, said that the Legislature, by signaling that composting will have to increase in Vermont, will encourage private investment in composting infrastructure.

“If I had extra money to invest in a composting facility, Vermont would be a great place to go,” Virga said.


Ahead of other states
Although San Francisco and Portland, Ore., also have mandatory composting programs in place, Vermont is the first to impose a statewide requirement. In doing so, the state is leaping ahead of Massachusetts, which until now has been considered the state most supportive of composting.

But Massachusetts may reclaim that mantle soon. This summer, the state Department of Environmental Protection is holding stakeholder meetings and drafting new regulations to phase in a ban on commercial and institutional organic waste in landfills. If such a ban is adopted, it would capture several times more compost than is currently generated in all of Vermont.

The Massachusetts regulations also might include a requirement to divert organic waste into biogas digesters – facilities that produce electric power from gases given off by the decomposition of organic wastes.

Biogas power may seem like science fiction at first, but it’s actually relying on proven technology that’s decades old and already in use in more than 2,200 locations across the United States, said Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council.

The environmental payback for converting compost into power is huge, Serfass said. As a gallon of organic material breaks down, it emits as much greenhouse gas as burning a gallon of gasoline. It also generates a lot of energy, and that’s free power that can be captured, Serfass said.

“We are basically wasting most of our organic waste,” Serfass said. “People are just starting to realize the additional energy that compost has.”

Some 23 states, including New York, currently ban yard waste from landfills. But many states lag behind the Northeast on composting efforts.

New York has a large infrastructure for composting, but it hasn’t been keeping up with Massachusetts and Vermont on legislation to encourage it, said Jean Bonhotal, associate director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute.

New York has an overabundance of landfill capacity, as well as low tipping fees for disposing of trash. The state has two tiers of licensing for composters, and many smaller-scale operators opt not to invest the capital necessary to ramp up to the second tier, Bonhotal said.


Contamination concerns
One challenge as expanded composting efforts in Vermont and Massachusetts start collecting wastes from a wider range of sources will be keeping compost free from contamination.

Last month, the Chittenden Solid Waste District, which covers the Burlington area, approved a compensation package of more than $900,000 for customers whose gardens were damaged by compost contaminated with a persistent herbicide. Hundreds of people bought the contaminated compost from the waste district earlier this year and applied it to their gardens, ruining their plants, according to reports in the Burlington Free Press.

Incidents like the one in Chittenden County could hamper the state’s composting plans. McSweeney pointed out that the effort to divert more organic waste into composting only makes sense if the compost that’s created can be sold as a value-added product. So if customers lose faith in that product, the economics of composting stop working.

Ensuring that compost is contaminant-free isn’t so easy. Many gardening companies sell fertilizer that has built-in herbicides to suppress weeds, and herbicides are being designed to break down more slowly, McSweeney said.

To prevent more problems like the one in Chittenden County, both McSweeney and Virga said the state will need more regulation and labeling of herbicide products and herbicide-tainted waste.

“It’s a huge concern,” McSweeney said. “If there’s a perception that it kills gardens, then bye-bye compost.”

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