Mass. Gears Up for Industrial Food-Scrap Ban

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

BOSTON — Visitors to Blue Man Group shows are likely so overwhelmed they never think about the amount of food waste each show produces. Apparently, it’s a lot. Bananas, gelatin, marshmallows and cereal from performances used to be funneled into two Dumpsters parked behind the Charles Playhouse.

But in 2010 all that changed. Company officials asked for help reducing the show’s waste stream from RecyclingWorks, a program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and managed by the nonprofit environmental organization Center for EcoTechnology (CET). Together they and the venue owner devised a system that annually diverts more than 42 tons of recyclables and food scrap from landfills and slashed collection costs by 70 percent.

“The new composting and recycling program has been very beneficial for Blue Man Group,” said Jonathan Screnci, the group’s resident general manager. “Not only are we reducing our disposal costs, but we’re also doing our part to reduce the impact of our waste on the environment.”

That’s the type of success story Massachusetts officials want to hear more often, especially with the state’s ban on industrial food waste going into effect July 1, 2014. The ban targets commercial and industrial generators of more than a ton of food and organic scrap each week, including universities, hospitals, hotels, supermarkets, convention centers and large restaurants.

By pushing the ban, DEP will advance the state’s goal of reducing waste by 30 percent, some 2 million tons, by 2020. Roughly 1.2 million of the total 6 million tons of annual waste is organic material. The state already annually diverts 100,000 tons, but wants to quadruple that amount in the coming years.

The ban won’t affect “the sub shop on the corner,” said Greg Cooper, DEP’s deputy director of consumer programs. However, he hopes that once it goes into effect haulers serving a large company might offer reasonably priced services to the small business next door. The idea, he said, “is to have infrastructure and processing capacity grow over time and become market driven to have these services become commonplace.”

Cooper estimated that 1,700 Massachusetts businesses will be impacted by the ban. DEP and its partners have already worked with more than 300 supermarkets to certify organic diversion programs. He said each store annually saves $10,000 to $20,000 because of new disposal programs that take food scrap to composting facilities, anaerobic digestion sites for electrical generation or pig farms.

DEP will launch an educational outreach campaign in coming months to reach all affected businesses. Those that fail to comply with the ban, once in effect, will receive an initial warning. About 99 percent of the time, Cooper said, a business will change its ways. Persistent offenders could receive a fine of up to $25,000.

“I can’t imagine us getting to that level in a first offense,” Cooper said.

Trey McCain, a CET green business eco-fellow, and his colleagues have started to field calls and receive e-mails from concerned companies. They are providing them with technical expertise on how to start composting.

“We want to help them avoid the common pitfalls as they’re facing these decisions,” McCain said.

Business owners often are skeptical of change, he said, and mostly concerned about odor, pests and the cost of switching their waste management system. CET staff work with clients to devise a new disposal, recycling and composting plan, and to educate employees on how to implement it. They also help businesses find an appropriate hauler to fit the company’s needs.

“We strive for either cost saving or cost neutral,” McCain said.

That is a relatively easy goal to achieve, considering western Massachusetts haulers charge up to $80 a ton for trash, compared to $40 a ton for food scrap.

Meanwhile, DEP is referring hauling and processing businesses or budding entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of new demand toward financing through the Recycling Loan Fund, administered by BDC Capital and originally funded by the state.

BDC Capital vice president Joseph Herzog said the fund can provide loans of up to $500,000 to small companies interested in buying tools such as a truck, compost grinder or a vacuum for anaerobic digestion units.