NIMBY Notes
Banning Food Waste From Landfills is Noble, but Complex

Banning Food Waste From Landfills is Noble, but Complex

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.  

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