NIMBY Notes

Banning Food Waste From Landfills is Noble, but Complex

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We’ve tried to be very thorough about covering the ways that members of the waste industry make mistakes when dealing with the permitting process. Every so often, their interactions with the local governments that regulate the industry are clumsy or short-sighted. The result is needlessly delayed or denied facilities. But the truth is that most developers, most of the time, are making the best of the complicated situation that government agencies put them in. And too often, it’s the government’s actions that cause problems for both the industry and the citizens it claims to be helping. 

We’re seeing a good example of this in Massachusetts, where the Boston Business Journal recently published a viewpoint from environmental law associates at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, a law firm in Boston. They write in praise of a recently announced decision that the state will prohibit food waste from being sent to landfills by non-residential institutions that dispose of more than 1 ton of food per week, such as universities, restaurant chains and corporate campuses. Although the motivation for the executive order is primarily environmental, the disposal of so much food has raised concerns about Massachusetts’ rapidly-dwindling landfill capacity as well.

The Boston Business Journal piece describes the change in detail: “The food waste ban will affect hotels, colleges, hospitals, convention centers, corporate campuses and grocery chains, among others. State Department of Environmental Protection regulations will implement the ban. Whether the ban applies to a particular facility, depends on the nature of that facility’s operations. For example, total food waste from multiple facility sites like chain restaurants will be calculated per facility, but college and corporate campuses will be subject to campus-wide thresholds. For seasonal businesses, the ban will not apply during periods when a facility produces little or no waste.”

Unfortunately, this move is unlikely to help anybody apart from attorneys eager to begin filing suit against food producers and waste facility operators. From a financial perspective, sending waste to a landfill is far and away the cheapest method of disposal, and the new regulations will force tons of waste to be sent to places like anaerobic digestion facilities at a much higher cost. Businesses will have to sort and separate their waste at the source, store it separately and have it picked up by a separate vehicle—all of which will increase their costs and, ultimately, their customers’ costs. And while it’s nice that officials are concerned about diminishing landfill airspace, there’s a much easier solution than the expensive siphoning of a waste stream: just permit and site more landfills.

On top of being expensive and counterproductive, the food waste ban suffers from a more elementary flaw: it’s darn near unenforceable. It’s tremendously difficult for a government with limited resources to monitor the daily flow of waste in a particular area and to determine whether or not it meets the 10 percent food waste threshold that this ban aims to eliminate—and even if inspectors find a violation, it can be similarly difficult to trace it back to its source.

After all, banana peels and moldy vegetables don’t come with tags indicating who threw them out. Perhaps, the unenforceability of rules like this are why waste industry observers estimate that 1 million tons of “banned” waste, nevertheless, makes it into Massachusetts landfills every year. And transferring the screening from the government to the industry is no solution either. Consumers will naturally gravitate to the few unscrupulous vendors willing to ignore the rule, thus creating an competitive disadvantage for companies trying to play by the rules.

Attempting to reduce the flow of waste is a noble goal, but we have to be smart as to how we pursue it. When Vermont enacted a similar ban, the state at least exempted waste producers located further than 20 miles from a facility capable of handling the organic material—a welcome nod to practicality and affordability. We need many more of these gestures from our elected officials if a topic as big and complex as banning food waste is to be tackled in the future.  

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Jun 1, 2014

It seems a bit cavalier or disingenuous to say, "...there’s a much easier solution than the expensive siphoning of a waste stream: just permit and site more landfills."

While at the same time saying, "It’s tremendously difficult for a government with limited resources to monitor the daily flow of waste in a particular area..."

Seems like you suggest that the local government should pick up the tab (including the legal costs when nimby suits arise), not to mention the health and environmental cost to "just permit and site more landfills."

Is it not fair that businesses should absorb the costs of doing business? Whether they pass those costs on to consumers is their tactical decision. But disinterested bystanders should not be expected to subsidize businesses they may not even benefit from via taxes and environmental impacts we all absorb the cost of.

Nor should the presence of scofflaws be an argument against a law. Fines should be levied and used to finance enforcement. And compliant businesses can publicize that compliance to capture the good will of their clients who will appreciate not being asked to subsidize the bottom line of that business.

For comparison, there's a program starting up in Paris, France that you can find with the following search terms: "paris france food waste ban" (links are disallowed here...why?)

on Jun 3, 2014

Complex sure, but you make it seem like an all out impossibility and economic disaster. In Nova Scotia there has been a ban in place for many years, including a ban on organic waste, and it works. It's true it is difficult for a single city to enforce a ban, but it can be done. Also in many cases diverting organics from landfill costs less to residents than transporting to landfills and composting can be sold, as can fuel produced from anaerobic digestion, plus tipping fees are rising so moving away from landfill in the long run is likely to be a cheaper option.
I don't really see simply building more landfills as a long term solution. It may seem simple in North America because we have space, but even the most technologically advanced landfill is still an ecological problem and one that will catch up with us.

on Jun 5, 2014

Never ceases to amaze me how this industry in an attempt to protect it's vested interest in tipping fees and weight divert from the fact that food waste should be banned, but of course that would affect the bottom line of the waste companies and certainly the landfill. But it is coming Vermont is just the death knell.

on Jun 6, 2014

You say "too often, it’s the government’s actions that cause problems for both the industry and the citizens it claims to be helping." And, "this move is unlikely to help anybody apart from attorneys."

The purpose of environmental legislation is to protect the human and natural environment. For waste management, this has meant rules prohibiting ocean dumping and unlined pits. Modern landfills do a better job of protecting the environment because of those regulations, even though it has meant higher costs for landfill owner/operators. But government was needed to force that change to safeguard our water, air, soil, etc.

Nobody is claiming that the recent organics disposal bans in MA, VT, CT are perfect or will be easy to implement/enforce. But that's not the heart of your criticism, or the landfill owner's attack -- it's that the law challenges the status quo of waste disposal, and potentially will take business away from landfill operators.

That will only happen if views like this blog continue to be propagated. The waste industry doesn't have to be narrow-minded and opposed to change. The recycling and composting sectors of the waste industry have been progressive, pushing for better management of the resources in our "waste" stream. This includes better permitting for food waste composting facilities, feed-in tariffs to support anaerobic digestion, sophisticated material recycling facilities, etc.

This generates more income for the "waste" industry, just not the "traditional" means of income. Look at landfill bans on yard trimmings, which created thousands of composting facilities around the country (some owned by WM, Republic, etc.), turning that material into a valuable commodity, and one that is beneficial for our soils and planet.

Change is afoot, let's show the world that the American waste industry is ready to become the resource recovery industry.

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Helping the waste industry improve its relationship with local governments and the communities it serves.

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Darden Copeland

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state and local affairs, land use and development, and grassroots lobbying. Have a...
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