Vermont law banning food waste leads to more compost—and “separation” anxiety

Statewide legislation has led to a big rise in food donation and composting. But the trickiest part of the equation—separating food from its packaging—continues to cause headaches.

There’s a community garden nestled at the outer edge of Ludlow, Vermont, behind the constellation of white barns that makes up a local craft school. In the summer, peach trees grow heavy with fruit and blueberries ripen on the bush while, nearby, in 10-foot by 10-foot plots, up to 50 gardeners plant tomatoes, peppers—“whatever you want,” said Phil Carter, who has lived in Ludlow for 46 years. “There’s no rules.” Most summers, kids from two nearby youth shelters tend to their own plot at the back of the garden. “They do a beautiful job,” Carter said. “You could take pictures and put it in a magazine.”

Carter is the site’s master gardener and composter. He arrived here in 2013, one year before the first phase of the state’s new Universal Recycling Law took effect, banning most food scraps generated by the largest commercial food waste producers from disposal in trash or the landfill. Act 148 also created an order of priorities to reroute potential food waste: It aimed, above all, to reduce waste at the source and increase the amount of still-edible products (say, if they’re slightly browned or past their sell-by date) that reach food banks, as well as to encourage better use of food scraps—for feeding animals, composting, and energy capture. It was an ambitious project for a small state, and at the time, prefiguring conversations about sustainability and waste-management that have since taken hold in other cities and states across the country.

The final phase of Act 148, a total ban of food waste in the trash or landfill, took effect in July of last year. It spurred a steep rise in residents investing in backyard composting and anaerobic digestion; by one estimate, sales of composting equipment increased nearly threefold in 2020. (Nationally, households are the largest source of food waste, according to ReFED.) “We knew the law was coming,” Carter said. So in 2017, with the help of the Composting Association of Vermont, he applied for, and received, a $3,000 grant to set up five separate composting systems within the community garden. By the start of the growing season that year, they were up and running.

Three piles of garden waste in various stages of breakdown sit on a grassy slope out front; in a small, wood-railed annex there are three tumblers that turn small loads of food scraps, three plywood chambers and a tall green bin. October 2021

At the community garden in Ludlow, Vermont, Phil Carter designed the site to fill a dual role: to allow gardeners to compost their household food scraps, and to educate.

Phil Carter

Three piles of garden waste in various stages of breakdown sit on a grassy slope out front; in a small, wood-railed annex there are three tumblers that turn small loads of food scraps, three plywood chambers, and a tall green bin. Carter designed the site to fill a dual role: to allow gardeners to compost their household food scraps, and to educate. Visitors have included students in the University of Vermont’s master composter program and delegates from nearby solid waste districts—like counties, but for trash. In the past year, Carter has observed the gardeners’ contributions double, from two 10-gallon metal pails per week to as many as four. And the gardeners grow flora and vegetables in soil enriched with their own compost.

“We went from a do-nothing garden to, we’re very popular,” said Gary Macintyre, a gardener who has worked with the youth program. “A lot of times, it’s just talk. Here, it’s things. Things get done.”

Across the United States, the Natural Resource Defense Council estimates that as much as 40 percent of the food supply goes to waste—and according to a recent survey from the Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of that ends up in a landfill. As landfilled materials decay, they release the potent greenhouse gas methane; food scraps alone produce emissions equal to that of 3.4 million vehicles, according to NRDC.

For decades, Vermont has tried to incubate a more sustainable, community-oriented food system than exists nationally—the kind of system that Carter’s community garden represents. “We’re close to the land,” said Josh Kelly, the materials management section chief at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). “We understand that putting something back into the land is good.” 

Around the same time that a group of Vermont farmers, advocates, and policymakers were providing input on what would become the Universal Recycling Law, Farm to Plate, an initiative to improve economic opportunities in agriculture and food production and reduce food insecurity, was also getting underway in the state.

The Natural Resource Defense Council estimates that as much as 40 percent of the food supply goes to waste—and according to a recent survey from the Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of that ends up in a landfill.

“There was this growing sense of organization and capacity in the food system,” recalled Tom Gilbert, a farmer and environmental justice advocate who runs Black Dirt Farm, an integrated carbon farm and compost facility in Vermont’s verdant Northeast Kingdom, an area so christened in the ’40s in part to draw commerce to the region. Gilbert was also involved with drafting the organics ban. “We were seeking an organics management system that would tie in,” he said.

The law passed in 2012 with the unanimous support of the state legislature (though without any funding to implement it). It would take effect gradually, over the course of six years, to allow communities time to adapt and develop infrastructure. In Vermont, few municipalities offer waste collection, so a cottage industry of carting companies emerged to facilitate food scrap collection—especially where larger operators trailed behind. In 2012, just 12 haulers offered residential food-scraps collection, Kelly said. Now, there are 45.

Vermont was fecund terrain to try out a greener waste-management program—most residents were doing the work even before it was law. In 2018, Meredith Niles, an associate professor of food policy at the University of Vermont, published a study in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems that showed 72.4 percent of Vermonters already composted some of their food scraps or fed them to animals. Her more recent survey on food security showed a 32 percent increase in people who composted at home.

“You’re always reminding folks that while compost is easy, we’re really looking to donate.”

The Vermont Foodbank has benefited from the law; from 2014 to 2017, donations increased nearly threefold, and from 2017 to 2019 they increased by roughly 20 to 50 percent, which Kelsey Morley, the organization’s product donor relationship manager, attributes in part to Act 148. Morley helps retailers identify opportunities to get their products to food-insecure Vermonters and address potential barriers to donation. “Making the priority that humans come first is something that’s kind of like a hamster wheel,” she said. “You’re always reminding folks that while compost is easy, we’re really looking to donate.” She suggested that additional state support—such as tax incentives for food donation—might help.

Statistics aren’t the only indicator of how things are going. “Diversion from the landfill is a really important piece, but success is a much bigger picture,” said Natasha Duarte, director of the Composting Association of Vermont. Just as important as quantity, she said, is quality: ensuring that potential food waste reaches people in need, and that compostable materials are as contaminant-free as possible. 

Chickens in green field in Vermont during the summer. October 2021

One essential component of clean compost is source separation, where organic and recyclable materials are separated from non-recyclable, non-compostable materials. But farmers and advocacy groups say that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has not upheld this definition of source separation. As a result, they say, the agency has favored large commercial haulers over farmer-composters.

Tom Gilbert

One essential component of clean compost is source separation, which the law defines as separating organic and recyclable materials from non-recyclable, non-compostable materials at the point where waste is generated.

But some Vermont farmers and advocacy groups say that ANR has not upheld this definition of source separation. As a result, they say, the agency has favored large commercial haulers over farmer-composters. In 2018, the agency granted a permit to AgriCycle, a Maine-based hauler that takes loads of both packaged and unpackaged food waste to depackaging facilities; earlier this year, a depackager operated by the waste-management behemoth Casella came online in Vermont. Gilbert, of Black Dirt, and Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company both say such haulers have siphoned business away from their farms—and, they say, depackagers introduce pollutants that farmers had worked for years with waste generators to remedy. “Plastic contamination has always been one of the biggest challenges to the integrity of the compost,” Hammer said.

“We’re kind of in the early Wild West part of depack technology in this country.”

The agency has said that it interprets source separation as separating packaged and unpackaged food from the rest of the trash—which, it says, is necessary for the state to meet its organics disposal ban, because as much as 38 percent of food waste is still packaged. “We see it as the service provider is providing the separation,” Kelly said.

Depackagers, which free food from its containers, can be valuable in certain scenarios. They’re especially effective at unwrapping large, homogeneous loads—like pints of ice cream or cans of soda—that would be too much for a person to do manually. But they also have downsides. Packaging that could have been recycled often cannot be once passed through the machine because it’s been soiled by food waste. Some evidence also indicates depackagers generate microplastics, which the EPA defines as pieces of plastic of less than 5 mm in any dimension, in the resulting slurry, which is usually then used for energy capture. “We’re kind of in the early Wild West part of depack technology in this country,” Hammer said. 

Joe Fusco, the vice president of communications for Casella, said the company is studying how to mitigate contamination at its Williston facility in conjunction with Eric Roy, a researcher at UVM.

In the near-decade since Act 148 was passed, Seattle, San Francisco and Boulder have instituted food-scraps bans down to the individual level.

Gilbert and the advocacy groups Rural Vermont, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Vermonters for a Clean Environment are seeking support from the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee to push ANR to apply source separation more rigorously. “The regulatory toolbox is diverse,” said Caroline Gordon, the legislative director for Rural Vermont. “It appears weird to me that an advocacy organization has to tell an agency of that size and budget what is available.” The organizations are also planning to do more outreach to raise public awareness, according to Marcie Gallagher, an environmental advocate for VPIRG.

In the near-decade since Act 148 was passed, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boulder have instituted food-scraps bans down to the individual level. This past July, legislation was introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would provide grants to support different methods of preventing food waste. And next year, a full ban on landfilling food and yard waste will take effect in California, though towns and cities throughout the state are already struggling to meet targets, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. It’s difficult to extrapolate what works or doesn’t from one state or city onto another. Vermont is sparsely populated and rural, and the infrastructure needs of denser, urban areas are different.

Still, according to Laurie Beyranevand, a food policy expert and the director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, part of the law’s approach could be applied elsewhere. “What was really interesting about Vermont’s strategy was thinking about it from a systems perspective—not just the fact that they wanted to get the food out of the landfill, but also how to make sure that it’s not getting wasted in the first place,” said Beyranevand, who was not involved with writing Act 148.

On the other side of Ludlow, the transfer station—essentially, the dump—has the town’s only other community compost site. Residents and some small businesses file in and out to drop off food scraps four days a week; at the end of each day, the collected waste is deposited in one of two large windrows of compost behind the facility. Out of one, tomatoes and a late-blooming watermelon are tentatively bearing fruit—the result of food scraps that went ahead and germinated.

Patti Potter, the transfer station manager, began a new compost program there in 2019. That way, she said, people could adjust to separating their waste before the ban took effect, and the town and its residents could save money that was being spent on private food-scraps collection. “You can’t make people change,” she said—but she hoped she could ease the transition. And with each season, the community gets a little bit more on board.

Katherine Cusumano is a Bermuda-raised, Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Eater, and others.