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Episode 59: Taking A Bite Out of What Food Waste Law Means (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste, recycling, and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Matt Karmel, Attorney from Riker Danzig Environmental Law. Welcome, Matt, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:38] Matt Karmel: Thank you very much, it's really exciting to be here on this podcast with you.

[00:00:42] Liz: Matt, we usually start at the beginning, so if you could just tell us a little bit about your background and what sparked your interest in sustainability.

[00:00:51] Matt: Absolutely. I've been practicing environmental law for Riker Danzig law firm for a little while now. A lot of what we do is focused on regulatory compliance site remediation. In other words, the remediation of contaminated sites, and other more traditional protective actions, how do we address a harm to the environment? How do we prevent harm to the environment in a more traditional setting? One of the things that I've started to think about going through that practice is, what else can we do to affect change to support sustainable businesses?

I think we've all heard the comment that you vote with your dollar a million times a day. I started to think, "How can I vote with my time as well?" That has drawn me, in the environmental law field, focusing on things that I view as more sustainable. Through some different fits and starts, and thinking about it and trying to figure out how to be involved with more projects like that, there was an opportunity a couple of years ago when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey signed legislation setting a food waste reduction goal in New Jersey, 50% reductions by 2030.

At that moment, it was clear that food waste was going to start taking off in New Jersey, not just because of the national policy and impact discussion that was going on, but because we had some different stars aligning in New Jersey. I said, "Okay, this is my shot", [laughs] "This is my shot to start doing the things in my every day that I'm interested in doing, the way to try to vote more with my career in a sustainable way." Like any good journey, a lot of different steps, a lot of different talking to people and thinking about things, having a lot of different opportunities, in some instances creating opportunities to work on the issue, to be involved in the issue. I'm very lucky to have had those opportunities over the last couple of years.

That brings me, I think, closer to today which is started working with the- really staying involved with food waste, and now it's really become such a major issue in New Jersey, where you have dozens of pieces of legislation over the past year that have been targeting food recovery, food waste, culminating in Governor Murphy signing the New Jersey Food Waste Recycling legislation in early April, which will require commercial generators to absorb, separate and recycle food waste. I think that's a long answer to your question, but I could go a lot longer too [laughs]. It's something that I'm passionate about and excited about, so it's easy to do so.

[00:04:32] Liz: I love that you're so passionate about it, and it does come through. Speaking of what Governor Murphy just signed, I know that you have recently written about that on Waste360. Can you dive a little bit more into that? What it means for the waste generators moving forward and trying to enact it?

[00:04:53] Matt: Absolutely. The law has several different components. The main component that the article focuses on, and I think most people care about, is what I call a Commercial Food Waste Recycling Mandate. What that means is there's certain large quantity food waste generators that are going to be required to source, separate, and recycle food waste in certain instances.

Now, there's a whole bunch of caveats and wiggle room in what I just said, that gets to, "Okay, that short sentence is easy and understandable but, at the same time, what does it mean? Who is subject? And really how are we going to implement it?" That's where we are standing with the Food Waste Recycling Legislation, standing at the point where it has now been signed into law and I think, the industry, is trying to get a handle on what are the questions that we need to ask, what are the gaps in the legislation. Once we put those questions on the table, we can start to figure this out, because the mandate itself doesn't go into effect until 18 months from its signing, so that's October 2021.

We have a little bit of time, that's not forever in the regulatory landscape, it's actually a decently tight window to get all the things in place that we're talking about. But we're, in a sense, at step one of, "Okay, we have this law, let's figure out what we need to do to implement it".

[00:06:41] Liz: Right. I know that, like you said, there are a ton of questions that will come out of this and that need to be worked through, but can the food waste recycling infrastructure keep up with the increased food waste that will come once this is all rolled out?

[00:06:58] Matt: The answer in the short term is, it depends on how you define food waste recycling infrastructure. In New Jersey, it typically takes 12 to 24 months to permit and site a full-blown commercial-scale composting, or anaerobic digestion facility, can take longer but that's the lead time for that type of facility. There are only four fully permitted commercial-scale composting and anaerobic digestion facilities in New Jersey right now.

Certainly, those four can't accommodate all of the waste being generated in New Jersey which, by the way, one estimate from the DEP, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, is that there's one point three, one point four million tons of food waste being generated every year and sent to landfills and incinerators. That gives you a size of the scope. Certainly, four facilities are not taking care of that yet.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to expand that infrastructure in 18 months, that doesn't mean we shouldn't get started because we should, but that number also misses out on a couple of other things. The four facilities, there are other facilities in New Jersey that operate on a smaller scale under different types of permits. Then we can talk about, "Okay, well, there are on-site food waste recycling options that don't require the permit the same way, or requires slightly different permits." There are more quickly scaling technologies that we can use and practices.

To be entirely optimistic about it, if we really wanted to process all of our food waste in 18 months in New Jersey, we could do it in this regulatory landscape, but it would be a patchwork of all of the different technologies and processes, including more non-traditional things, like food waste upcycling, which there are several interesting projects around the area that are getting off the ground. It's one of those things.

The physical infrastructure doesn't yet exist, but it's possible that we could get there if we were creative, driven, and working that way. It's my hope that we're going to do as good a job as we can. That's, I think, all the industry really can do, is, "We've got this target and let's work towards it, let's get as many facilities permitted as we can in a safe and responsible manner. Let's see what other options they're out there and figure out." Are there on-site options that work for specific generators? Are there food donation options that work for different generators?, Because food donation is such an important part of this. Of that one point three million tons that we were talking about, estimates range that between 40 and 60% it's edible.

It's all of these different solutions that make up the infrastructure. But at its core, the infrastructure is not there yet at least, we just would have to see how we can get it there.

[00:10:52] Liz: We'll see. I like your optimistic outlook, that always helps because you have to work towards something, right?

[00:10:58] Matt: Exactly. Because there's a lot of very intelligent, very nice people, people who embrace this vision working towards this goal. It's something that I feel confident being optimistic too.

[00:11:12] Liz: Is there a good program in another state that's the perfect example of how to do this?

[00:11:20] Matt: I think it's a function of borrowing what works from other states, because I think each state has some specific considerations, concerns, and different things. New Jersey is such a highly densely populated state, I know we have areas that are less densely populated, but there's so many different factors that it's hard to pull from one program.

For instance, New York state is sending out letters to generators that might be subject to the New York food waste recycling mandate, taking that affirmative step of selecting those people and telling them that they might be subject. That's something that I think probably would be good to borrow, and is one of the questions for implementation of this legislation which is, how are people going to know if they're subject? The average business is not tracking its food waste, and one of the gates for being subject to the legislation is generating 52 tons or more per year of food waste. If people aren't tracking it, how do they know they're in it? That's where, I think, guidance and following that New York model, would probably be helpful.

[00:12:42] Liz: Absolutely. To your point about talking with the waste generators, is there a whole education side of things for them that will help this go smoothly?

[00:12:54] Matt: That's something that's being discussed extensively now. There is a little bit in the legislation about requiring the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to provide some guidance. I know that The New Jersey Composting Council and other groups, the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, Sustainable Jersey City, a lot of people who are involved in this and supported the legislation are thinking about how to advise businesses. Because we don't want this to be a big lift for businesses, it is a new requirement. With any new requirement, we want to try to make everyone understand how easy it can be. That's something that's ongoing and we're trying to figure out how to make this as simple for business as possible.

[00:13:47] Liz: Great. Matt, do you think the pandemic is pushing the industry and consumers, in general, to focus more on food waste?

[00:13:56] Matt: I do. I think that there are a lot of initiatives and lots of articles with new statistics coming out about how much food is being wasted at this point in time. We're all at home now. Being our waste in a much more constrained way, in normal life you're at the office for a couple of hours, you're home for a couple of hours, you're at restaurant for dinner, I think we're all seeing our waste in a different way than we have in the past. Every kitchen scrap is now sitting in your garbage pail, instead of the garbage pail at the restaurant.

I think we're getting a better understanding of what our waste's impact is, and I'm hopeful that increased awareness will help drive people to understand the environmental impact of food waste and how their actions can really address that issue. But at the same time, COVID-19 does create that uncertainty in, "Okay, this is an additional interaction." Food waste, two options are you composted in your backyard or you have a pickup service that comes and picks up your food waste. There are certainly safe ways to do that in the current situation, and there are operators in New Jersey that are doing it but, as I said, it's an additional interaction with the world that some people aren't going to be comfortable with, at least at this time.

There's both of those things, I think, pushing and pulling against us in addition to the economic issues associated with the pandemic. As wallets get tighter, people don't necessarily spend for the things that they would spend for at different times.

[00:15:52] Liz: Definitely. You're mentioning the New Jersey Composting Council. Were you a founder of that?

[00:15:58] Matt: I was. At the beginning-- A journey has a bunch of different steps, and it's an evolving thing and I do say I've been on a sustainability and food waste journey over the last couple of years. The New Jersey Composting Council, its origin story begins at another New Jersey zero-waste event where a couple of us met and we're talking about organics and we're specifically disappointed with some of the more mainstream views of, "You can't get organics recycling to take off in New Jersey, it's just not going to happen." Because that was included in the mainstream dialogue at that event.

There were, I would say, about eight of us who got together and said, "This is something we need, how can we do it?" We have a couple of organizations in New Jersey that are focused on recycling and focused on waste, but no one that's really taking care of the organics recycling industry. We had some really great other founding members, Jairo Gonzalez, Isaac Bearg, Java and Michelle Bradley, and we all banded together and we were very lucky to have the infrastructure support of the US Composting Council. Linda Norris-Waldt and Frank Franciosi, they gave us the structure to figure this out and make it work.

We had a lot of people come together, Ryan Cerrato from Denali WeCare Organics and many others to make this happen. The response was immediate and exciting, we had our first annual Organic Summit in New Jersey last fall, and we had over a hundred attendees. It was just a nice thing to see, and we're getting people engaged. As I said a couple of minutes ago, it's a small industry in New Jersey at this point, especially if you focus on the food waste side of it, it's growing and there are a lot of regulatory hurdles, but we're getting there, slowly by slowly we're building an industry consensus and working through those issues.

[00:18:32] Liz: Good for you, that's fantastic. I've read that you have a knack for helping clients navigate tough environmental issues. There's just so many moving parts, the government, different stakeholders to keep happy, and everyone's individual agendas. What's the secret, Matt?

[00:18:50] Matt: [laughs] "What is the secret?", that's a great question. I think the secret is being as informed as possible, being as creative as possible, but also being as grounded as possible. Informed, creative, and grounded because then you can make the right decisions and guide people in the right way. Each project is different, so you want to bring a wide variety of knowledge and understanding to it, but you also want to say, "Okay, so this has worked in the past, maybe we'll try it here", but you need to be able to adapt in the moment. I think that it does come down to creativity a lot, and creativity that it's sorted in reason, judgment, and experience.

It is difficult and it can be frustrating for people because food waste, environmental, they're very complicated fields of law, and sometimes I refer to them as esoteric because if we have just a couple of businesses doing each thing, then it's not like there is a huge market for this where there's a lot of resources, it's really a lot more case-by-case basis and figuring it out that makes it difficult too.

[00:20:14] Liz: Definitely. It sounds like you have the answer, I think a lot of people could learn from you. Like you said earlier, you've been doing this a little while, are you happy with what you've seen in the last few years for close to a decade around sustainability? Whether that's from a legal perspective or consumer. Do you feel progress is being made?

[00:20:37] Matt: I guess I'm more comfortable saying that I feel momentum is building. I think progress is being made, and I think progress is a nonlinear concept. Progress means one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, it changes in different kinds of things. As a lawyer and someone who's thinking of this, "How can the legal field support sustainability?" I think that discussion is in, I would say, earlier stages, it piss me off there are a lot of different ways that the legal field supports sustainability.

For instance, within advertising law, there's the concepts of advising businesses on environmental claims, and then within more regulatory work, there's helping businesses get permits for sustainable activities. Then there's more reporting work of making sustainable reports and making sure those things are compliant. What I'm trying to really drive home is that the legal field for sustainability in so many siloed ways, it can be hard to get a comprehensive picture of- For instance, no one would bat an eye if I called myself an environmental lawyer, but people will go, "What do you do?", if I were to call myself a sustainability lawyer.

To that extent, I think the legal field is at its early stages. One of the things that really encourages me is, one, all the statistics coming out about how many people consumers are willing to pay for sustainability, whether it's in a restaurant setting, or in a product setting, or something else. Then, how many mission-driven businesses are showing up, B Corp certified businesses that say, "I'm going to make the environment part of my bottom line", and make that leap which is so important. We want to align consumer interests with sustainability, but we also want to align business interests with sustainability. Those businesses that are finding a way to create mission-driven sustainable businesses really give me a lot of hope that we're attacking it from both sides.

[00:23:15] Liz: That's great. I think that's a good point about the momentum, there does seem to be a momentum shift, companies are seeing that by doing good they do profit. I think once those monetary connections are made to you, you'll see that swing in the other direction as well.

[00:23:35] Matt: Absolutely. The amount of capital that is committed to some form of sustainable investing is growing every year and it's tremendous, so it's a shifting tide if it hasn't shifted already.

[00:23:54] Liz: Absolutely. I know we talked a lot about the pandemic and food waste, is there anything that you hope that we all remember coming out of this whether it's around food waste or sustainability in general?

[00:24:08] Matt: Yes, there is something that I hope we all remember from this, and I think it's, it's not always easy, but it is possible to change human behavior overnight. So many of the climate solutions that we talk about are about changing human behavior, and we did it. Not for a reason that we wanted to, but we did it overnight, so we can do anything, it's a matter of trying to figure out, "Okay, what do we want to do? How are we going to do it? And what trade-offs are we willing to make in making that thing?"

I think everyone will admit very easily that we are all making trade-offs today as a result of the pandemic, we are all dealing with situations that are difficult, whether that's personal, emotional, economic or environmental, whatever it is, we're all dealing with something difficult. That's a trade-off that we've made as a result of this situation, and looking forward we are going to be able to change human behavior, but what trade-offs are we going to make? How do we evaluate them? That's both of the optimistic side but also, the jarring side.

Can you even believe that we've all made this major change overnight? It seems unimaginable sometimes that when I look at the calendar and say, "Oh, I've been working from home for over a month", I never thought for a million years I'd be working from home for over a month, but here we are, adjusting, learning, doing and getting through this together.

[00:25:55] Liz: So true. Matt, what's next for you? You've accomplished so much already, what's on your list?

[00:26:00] Matt: I have a couple of things on my list. I want to keep working with more sustainable businesses, that's out as my personal, professional goal, to advise those businesses and help them to grow and succeed, and really develop personal strong relationships with those businesses. More importantly, the people who run them and the people who support them, because that's what I believe in and where I want to be.

[00:26:37] Liz: That's fantastic. Well, Matt, I loved having this conversation, I love that you're putting so much energy and brainpower behind this. You're going to make the world a better place because of it, so thank you so much. I look forward to keeping in touch.

[00:26:53] Matt: Excellent, thank you very much.

[00:26:55] Liz: Thank you, talk soon.  

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TAGS: Food Waste
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