Melissa Hackney on food waste

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From: Melissa Hackney, Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship

To: Bluedot Living

Subject: Let’s compost all our food waste on-Island by 2025

Martha’s Vineyard’s primary export is not fish, or locally grown food, or Island-made crafts. It’s trash. An estimated 19,000 tons of garbage are shipped off-Island each year. Of that, 6,500 tons is food waste. Over the years, various concerned Islanders have explored ways to collect and repurpose food waste locally into valuable and environmentally friendly compost. They realized that doing this on-Island would keep decaying vegetable matter and the methane gas it produces out of landfills. It would also reduce transportation and disposal costs, and the number of trucks and boats using fossil fuels. 

By 2009, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan, in the works since 2006, had identified a centralized composting unit as a key strategy to transform the Island’s organic waste (any biodegradable waste that comes from a plant or an animal) into useful resources. Selecting a solution can be easier than implementing it, though, especially when the desired outcome requires action by every Islander and every Island town. People must separate their food waste at home, and compost it or regularly take it to a collection site. A site (or sites) for an in-vessel composting unit (or units) must be acquired by purchase or long-term lease. An organization, public, private, or a combination, must step up to run the entire collection, composting, and curing process. Funding — again, public, private, or a combination — must be secured. Each town must approve an agreement for the facility’s use and, potentially, all or a portion of its capital costs. 

People are inspired to act when a need is urgent and personal. Massachusetts’ 2014 ban on commercial food waste in the trash stream made the problem personal for at least 18 of the Island’s restaurants and the people who work in them. Any entity that produced one ton (reduced to a half-ton in 2021) of food waste during any week of the year is required to separate food waste and send it to a proper composting facility. And yet, seven years after the food separation law took effect, the infrastructure does not exist to collect and compost at scale.

Beginning in 2013, in anticipation of the law’s enactment, the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, through research and interviews, identified pockets of Islanders who recognized and were discussing the problem. The board of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRD) had been meeting with Jim Athearn, Tomar Waldman, Jessie Holtham, Alan Ganapol, Brendan O’Neil, and others for more than a year regarding food waste composting. The town transfer stations, the town boards of health, the MVRD, the hospital, the commercial trash and recycling businesses, restaurants, and the schools were also interested. But nothing concrete was underway. At that point, Morning Glory Farm had a Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources permit to accept food waste for composting in windrows, but only utilized food from its own farmstand, along with materials like leaves and grass clippings from landscapers.

Fast-forward to today. Not only is the MVRD well-positioned to acquire an in-vessel composting facility (together with food waste pickup and compost curing operations) for use by all six Island towns, but several other locations and business models are being explored. The optimum Island-wide organic waste composting solution is in sight, potentially fully operational by 2025.

The project has come this far only because of the combined, years-long efforts of public officials, private citizens, and concerned philanthropists. By 2015, the Vision Fellowship had convened and funded an Organics Committee comprised of local leaders to study the very Vineyard challenge of finding a six-town food waste solution. The Vision Fellowship provided funds so that the committee could hire a project manager, Sophie Abrams, and consultants to help conduct the study. As part of the project, the committee initiated a food waste pickup pilot in 2016 that showed such early promise that Island Grown Initiative (IGI) took it over in 2017. IGI grew the pilot into what is now Island Food Rescue, a distinct program within IGI that works to reduce, repurpose, and recycle food waste.

The pilot’s early success also was a call to local action for the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation (the Fink Foundation). In 2019, the Fink Foundation donated an in-vessel composting unit and food waste pickup truck to IGI. This enabled Island Food Rescue to expand its capacity to prove that local, at-scale food waste composting is economically and environmentally beneficial. At the same time, the organization launched an Island-Wide Food Waste Initiative to reduce food waste on Martha’s Vineyard by 50 percent by 2030 (ReFed, a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system, created by the Fink Foundation, has also set that goal for the entire country). A component of this effort has been to join the push for an Island composting facility. The initiative’s manager from 2019–21, Eunice Youmans, devoted the majority of her time to developing IGI’s Island Food Rescue program and to supporting the Organics Committee’s efforts toward an Island-wide composting solution. 

This year, the Vision Fellowship has awarded a grant, its fourth, to the Organics Committee so that it can continue its efforts for the next two years. Woody Filley has joined as project manager, and James Robinson, a 2017 undergraduate Vision Fellow who is earning his master’s degree in public education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the project intern. Woody and James are working with the Organics Committee and leading the extensive, coordinated public policy activities, including significant engagement with local public officials, and presentations to town officials and at town meetings through 2023, that are necessary to facilitate the creation of an Island composting operation capable of processing all of the Island’s food waste by 2025. 

Making this happen will take more than the combined efforts of the Organics Committee members, the project team, IGI, the Vision Fellowship, and the Fink Foundation. For this to become a reality, we must all act now to address the problem with a comprehensive, well-planned Island-wide solution.

What you can do: 

  • Let your town leaders know that you want your town to participate in an Island-based, in-vessel composting facility, whether located at the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District or another site.
  • Collect kitchen scraps in a small countertop container. To collect multiple full crocks before making a transfer station trip, buy a five-gallon plastic bucket with an airtight lid. If you have the refrigerator space, store it there for no smell.
  • For easy cleanup, line the bucket bottom with a paper towel. Then the food scraps easily dump out.
  • Compost at home, or take your full compost buckets to any Island transfer station, or IGI’s Thimble Farm, where drop-off is free through 2021. 

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