Soon everyone in Vermont will be required to keep food waste out of their trash. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law, also known as Act 148, which bans three major categories of materials from Vermonters’ trash bins: recyclables such as plastic, cardboard and paper; leaves, yard debris and clean wood; and food scraps. The law has been phased in since 2014, and goes into full effect on July 1, 2020, after which time it will apply to everyone in Vermont, including businesses, homeowners and renters, who will all be required to keep food scraps out of their trash.
Food waste can be donated to food rescue programs like the Vermont Foodbank if the food is still edible, it can be sent to farms to be used as animal feed, or it can be composted on-site or at a commercial facility, of which there are a growing number around the state.
The law also provides a degree of flexibility. It allows haulers and facilities to request exemptions or variances from some collection requirements. Businesses can dispose of a “de minimus” amount of food waste if they have an active composting program in place. And residents who compost at home can throw meat and bones in the trash — even after the 2020 food scrap ban is in effect.
But why does the state care where our food waste goes?
“There are many good reasons for keeping food waste out of the landfill, and that’s why it was voted for unanimously,” says Emma Stuhl, who works with the Solid Waste Program within the Vermont Department of Environmental Conversation, a department within the Agency of Natural Resources. First, she explains, a lot of perfectly good food was going into the trash. Now, since the inception of this law, the amount of food being diverted to the Foodbank has tripled.
Diverting food waste from the landfill is also a solution for climate change, Emma continues. When food scraps get buried under the ground at the landfill, they break down in a way that releases methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane is a highly potent green house gas that is more than 20 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When food scraps are composted, however, a host of organisms break down the material and instead release carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas, just like methane, it is a less harmful one. So, composting food waste, compared to landfilling it, leads to an overall reduction in warming from greenhouse gases.