Opinion letter to the editor

Long term solution needed for MIT campus waste disposal

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Illustration by Kedi Hu

Approximately 100 billion pounds of food are thrown out every year, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the available food supply. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food accounts for 21 percent of the waste sent to landfills and incinerators, the largest percentage for any single material in the waste stream.

Food waste decomposes anaerobically in landfills, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting diverts food waste from landfills and turns it into a useful product. Compost made from food waste is valuable to farmers and provides an environmentally friendly alternative to artificial fertilizers.

However, the rate of composting in the United States remains abysmally low. In 2013, only five percent of food waste was composted. In contrast, Austria composted 34 percent of its municipal solid waste in 2011. To address this problem, Massachusetts enacted an organics waste ban on organizations that generate more than one ton of food waste per week, including supermarkets and universities like MIT.

Recently, composting has become more difficult in the Boston area, and  MIT’s composting rules have changed as a result. In previous years, napkins, compostable utensils, cups, and dishware were compostable through MIT’s system. But as of this fall, only pure food waste is being accepted. That means if you throw a piece of compostable dishware or napkin into a green compost bin, the compost will be considered “contaminated” and will be sent to a landfill.

If you are outraged by this change in policy, you are not alone. UA Sustainability has spent the last few years trying to spread the use of compostable dishware across campus, and has now been forced to retract the program. Facilities is at a loss, and is working to find alternative solutions. To understand why the composting rules at MIT have changed, it is necessary to step back and look at the wider context of composting in the Boston area.

This past summer, the composting facilities that serve MIT stopped accepting compostable dishware and now only accept pure food waste. MIT’s compost is hauled by Casella Waste Systems Inc. and distributed to several facilities. Casella breaks MIT’s waste into two streams, Front of House and Back of House. Back of House compost is generated in the kitchens during food preparation, and consists of 100 percent food waste. Front of House compost includes the green bins in the infinite, Student Center, Stata, and dining halls. These bins rely on students to accurately sort waste, and tend to contain a higher percentage of compostable dishware and a higher percentage of contamination from trash. In the past, Casella sent Back of House compost directly to farms and sent Front of House compost to industrial composting facilities. The compost needs to be separated because compostable dishware is more difficult to break down than food waste-- dishware requires higher temperatures and ideally preprocessing steps which can only be attained at industrial composting facilities. When facilities in the Boston area stopped accepting compostable dishware, there was nowhere for Casella to send MIT’s Front of House compost, and Casella was forced to send it to landfills.

But why did facilities stop accepting compostable dishware in the first place? The answer is not straightforward. The supply of compost and the demand for compost processing has risen much faster than the capacity of the composting facilities in the Northeast. As a result, there are plenty of places piloting compostable dishware programs, such as the local restaurant Clover or UA Sustainability’s own compostable dishware program, but the infrastructure does not exist to process the compost stream. As the supply of compost increases relative to the demand for compost from the facilities, facilities can become choosier about what type of compost they accept. Facilities would rather accept pure food waste than mixed compostable dishware and food because food breaks down more quickly and creates higher quality compost than mixed waste. Additionally, when compost includes compostable dishware it is more likely to contain contamination from non-biodegradable materials.

Clover and other businesses in Cambridge are experiencing similar problems with composting. Clover switched to 100 percent compostable packaging in 2010, a program that costs the company over $200,000 a year to maintain. Ayr Muir, Clover’s CEO, believed the cost was worth the environmental benefit. But in June 2016, Muir discovered that Save That Stuff (STS), the company that hauls Clover’s compost, had been throwing Clover’s compost in the trash. STS had broke its compost into two streams: dirty and clean. Clover was on the dirty route because its compost was sometimes contaminated with trash. STS sent the dirty compost to an industrial composting facility in central Massachusetts, WeCare Environmental.

Unfortunately, WeCare had a falling out with STS earlier this year. STS claimed that WeCare had become unreliable, while WeCare argued the STS had gone months without paying fees. STS broke off relations with WeCare and declared that from this point forward it will only accept food scraps. STS is a prominent compost hauler the Boston area and this decision affects the fate of many local composting programs, including MIT’s. According to Adam Mitchell, a STS executive, the economics don’t make sense for the company to encourage customers to use compostable dishware. In his opinion, the risk of contamination does more environmental harm than good.

However, Nora Goldstein of Biocycle magazine disagrees that accepting compostable dishware is a fundamental problem with the composting industry. She interviewed Carla Castagnero, president of AgRecycle, an organics collection and composting company in Pittsburgh. According to Castagnero, AgRecycle has been successfully accepting compostable dishware in their compost for over a decade. She says her company has no magic secret, just a simple set of rules. They pre-grind their compostable items (such as cups and cardboard) to decrease breakdown time, they ensure their piles reach the correct temperatures, and they work with their customers to emphasize appropriate signage and education to reduce contamination. AgRecycle found that accepting compostable dishware and Front of House collection increased food scrap capture by 78 percent. By refusing to accept compostable dishware, composting companies could be losing out on a huge portion of potential food scraps. There is hope for compostable dishware, but for the time being the Boston area seems to be stepping away from that direction.

Casella will “continue to monitor the marketplace for new facilities that might be able to accept these items in the future,” Abbie Webbs, Sustainability Director of Casella said. As MIT and Casella work toward finding a long-term solution to campus waste disposal, here are some steps you can take to help reduce waste in the meantime: use reusable utensils and dishware as often as possible, compost only food waste in the green bins around campus, and spread the word about the changes in our composting system.

Erin Reynolds is Publicity Chair for the UA Sustainability Committee.