On a frozen winter morning, the sound of my feet crunching along in squeaky snow is an almost daily occurrence as I trek my food scraps, carefully collected during meal prep the day before, out to my backyard compost bin. I emptied the bin in the fall onto a garden bed and now the bin is filling up with winter’s waste.
It’s a scene that plays out in backyards around my home state, as Vermonters bring their compostable waste to their bins and tumblers, or to flocks of clucking chickens or grunting pigs who enjoy the fresh meal. The cycle from food to waste to valuable input keeps our gardens and farms well, on the cheap. Still others, with their Yankee frugality, just throw the scraps on an open pile, proudly unwilling to pay a trash hauler or transfer station to take it away. And others, particularly where space is limited, are experimenting with indoor composting systems and “worm farms.”
Those of us who are diligently separating our compostable waste from our trash are ahead of the curve in Vermont. A new law takes effect this summer: On July 1, 2020, residents will no longer be allowed to put compostable materials into their trash, per Act 148, known as the Universal Recycling Law. It aims to reduce food waste, increase food rescue programs, and divert food scraps from landfills.
Americans produce, on average, one pound of food waste per day — amounting to about one-third of a day’s worth of calories. In Vermont, 20% of the waste stream is food waste. That’s bad for our pocket books, because it means wasted money, but it’s also bad for the planet. Fortunately, Vermont is a leader: A recent study, published last week in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, found that 72% of Vermonters already compost. Once the law goes into effect this summer, 75% of the state’s residents say they plan to compost.
As one of the smallest states with one of the lowest populations, Vermont is in fact a leader as the first state to enact a law like this. Some states, like Connecticut and Delaware, have similar programs, though they have less-robust laws that require only larger trash generators to compost. Some municipalities, like San Francisco and Seattle, have enacted similar bans, but the laws aren’t statewide. Vermont is the only state in the county that will require all individual residents, like homeowners and renters, to do something with their food scraps other than throw them in the trash.
When it comes to composting, Vermont residents have three options for their food scraps in order to be in compliance with the law: compost at home, drop the waste off at a transfer or other collection station, or subscribe to curbside pickup offered by companies like Casella, Myers, and Earth Girl Compost. There are 100 transfer stations in Vermont collecting food scraps, and almost every town has a collection facility within 10 miles.
But, while Vermonters are largely in favor of the food scrap ban, the recent UVM study also showed that most of us are unwilling to pay for curbside pickup. It’s an added cost for households that can’t compost in their own yard, and there is a time investment to drop your food scraps off at a collection facility.
Recent commentary in VTDigger by a UVM student underscores this point of view for urbanites, and renters and college students in particular, arguing that the law puts a financial burden on those who don’t have the space or equipment to compost at home — a burden that’s exacerbated in low-income households.
In rural areas, where residents tend to be homeowners, backyard composting was the favored method. But that presents different challenges for those communities.
“In a rural state like Vermont, households are generally further apart, which can increase food waste transport costs and have a negative environmental impact, especially if participation in a curbside compost program is low,” said Meredith Niles, UVM Food Systems and Nutrition and Food Sciences assistant professor and lead author of the study.
“The trend in big cities has been to offer curbside compost pickup programs, especially in densely populated areas, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for how we manage food waste,” said Niles. “Our study suggests that, especially in more-rural areas, people may already be managing their food waste in a way that leaves it out of the landfills.”
But applying blanket statements or approaches in our state doesn’t feel right to Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. “Just as there are urban dwellers who compost at home,” he points out, “there are some rural residents who would prefer curbside pickup.”
The UVM study demonstrates that there are a variety of ways that Vermonters can meet the new requirements that ban food waste from the landfills, explains Niles. Overall, she says, the results add nuance to how we approach food waste.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that works in Vermont. I think this is actually a good thing, it demonstrates the flexibility and opportunities Vermonters have to comply with the policy in different ways.”
For those who want to learn more about backyard composting, visit the Agency of Natural Resources website 802recycles.com. The website helps residents find their solid waste management district, discounted composting bins, and guides to help get set up. Residents can also participate in the Vermont Master Composter course offered online each fall by UVM Extension or consult the cooperative extension service in their home state.