By Steve Peters
If you’ve read this column before, you know that at RAFFL we focus on topics and issues relating to our local food economy and food choices, much of which fits under the realm of farm to plate. But, in a sustainable perspective, one that encompasses our entire food system, that is only part of the discussion.
If we truly want to improve our food system, we need to go beyond the initial, though entirely important components, such as how our food is produced and how far it’s transported. How about what’s left behind after we’re done preparing and eating our food, the next step after farm to plate? We need to rethink the next stop after our plates – the landfill – otherwise the food system remains rather linear, and ultimately, broken.
Fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds are just the beginning. Have you ever thought about where these leftover foods go and their impact afterwards? In Vermont, it’s estimated that we produce 120-130,000 tons of food waste annually – that’s about a third of everything that goes into our rapidly rising landfills.
As someone who spends a good deal of time in his kitchen, I can say that food waste is a large majority of the trash I produce. And the same goes for restaurants and cafeterias. Together, with all of our homes, restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores and other businesses, it’s easy to see how quickly food waste can add up.
Fortunately, efforts are being made to help us redirect that waste from sitting in landfills and producing harmful greenhouse gases, like methane, to becoming something useful – compost. Compost is the natural process of the decomposition of organic materials into a high quality soil amendment. For agricultural purposes, compost helps increase yield and size in crops, increases soil nutrient content and water holding capacity of sandy soils, and reduces the need for fertilizers.
In July 2012, Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law the Act Relating to Establishing Universal Recycling of Solid Waste (Act 148) – a universal recycling act that will ban the improper disposal of recycling and organic materials. It will provide options for effectively managing these materials, including food waste.
Vermont will be the first state to establish such an act. Between 2014 and 2020, Act 148 will include phased-in composting requirements that will start with the largest generators of food waste and end with the smallest – homeowners. Vermont businesses will be required to redirect their food scraps by 2017, while all residents will have until 2020.
Last Monday evening, we were happy to host the Highfields Center for Composting, as well as the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, for a presentation about Act 148 and how it will look moving forward in the phasing process. A variety of involved parties were in attendance – including folks from Casella, Farm to Wilderness, Someday Farm, Breezy Meadows Farm, the Rutland County Solid Waste District, and interested citizens.
Highfields works to support composting capacity and helps people achieve their composting goals through community based programs. They were helpful in giving some perspective on the composting components of Act 148 and how we can work together to make the goals a reality.
They pointed out that local waste and local food groups, like RAFFL, are having similar conversations, but in different rooms. Highfields suggested that it is time for food waste to become a conversation of the local food movement and that makes sense to me. The compost that is created through the act’s efforts will make its way back into agriculture, and in the process, have a big impact on our local farms.
For starters, it will allow our food system to become a full cycle. Instead of ending at our plates, it will continue on back to the farms, making the system: farm to plate to compost and back to farm.
While the act has yet to go into effect, Highfields currently has two goals they’re working towards. First, they are striving to empower all of Vermont with the knowledge and resources to maximize composting efficiency and recovery. The second goal involves infrastructure for the successful capture of all food scraps for re-utilization in 2017. Considering that Rutland alone creates an estimated 227 tons of food scraps a week – it’s a good thing Highfields is starting the conversation now.
Years ago, it was believed that basic recycling was a farfetched idea. Yet today it is a common household practice. Ten years from now, in Vermont, at least, the same might be true for composting.
Steve Peters manages RAFFL’s communications and Everyday Chef program. Email him at Steve@rutlandfarmandfood.org
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.