Composting 101: What You Need To Know About Vermont's Food Scrap Ban
July is here, and with it comes mandatory composting for all Vermonters. This hour: we’re talking about the new mandatory composting law that went into effect July 1st. We’ll check in with the department of environmental conservation, answer your questions about how to start composting, whether it's through a third party or in your backyard, and learn why composting is important to begin with.
Our guests are:
- Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the department of environmental conservation and oversees the implementation of Vermont’s universal recycling law
- Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a national non-profit working to reduce food waste
- Carolina Lukac, garden education manager at the Vermont Community Garden Network
Broadcast live on Monday, July 6, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The basics of Vermont's new composting mandate
Jane Lindholm: So, what is it that you want people to start doing when it comes to composting?
Josh Kelly: The state has launched a web site, ScrapFoodWaste.org, where we're looking for folks to do two things really: to eat what they buy, and really think differently about preventing food waste in the first place.
And that's everything from planning for leftovers and just carefully planning what you buy and how you use it, to composting the scraps. There are inevitable scraps like banana peels and coffee grounds that we all produce, and they actually do damage to the climate and fill landfills unnecessarily, when we can be using them for better things. And so that's what this is all about.
Can you go through the steps of this composting law and recycling law to see where we've come from and where we are headed now that this individual composting ban is in place?
"...20% of our waste is food and food waste. It's the largest material by type in our trash." — Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation
Josh Kelly: We have had a state goal to have 50% of the waste that we produce separated and recycled, reused or composted. And that goal has never been met in all the years that it's been in place. And in 2012, the Legislature said, "Well, what is it going to take to meet this goal?"
And so, the Legislature took up and unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law in 2012 to help achieve that 50% goal. We've gotten closer to it at different times, but it's been a long haul, and you really can't get there without focusing on food waste, because 20%, of our waste is food and food waste. It's the largest material by type in our trash.
So in 2014, the milestones of the universal recycling law started to take effect. One of the first ones was that any producer of food waste that was producing more than two tons a week, must separate that material, if they're located within 20 miles of a facility that could take it. So we've been on an eight-year journey, from 2012 to 2020.
And over that time, we've been on the path towards a full food waste ban, which passed in July 2019. And during that time, there's been a lot of activity. There have been new composting facilities and new haulers starting to offer services. There are now over 100 transfer stations across the state that offer collection of food scraps. And a lot of people have started backyard composting where they can do so.
So what's available for people at their transfer stations?
Josh Kelly: So if a transfer station collects trash, they're required to collect food scraps - and they can charge for that service. Those food scraps are typically collected in “toters,” or rolling carts - just like you use for trash and recycling - and they take all food scraps in those rolling carts. That means meat and bones, dairy products, breads, vegetable trimmings, fruit trimmings, coffee grounds - the whole enchilada of food scraps. For residents that compost at home, the law was written to allow them to continue to dispose of meat and bones in the trash even after July 1.
What's the rule around trash haulers?
Josh Kelly: So this past July 1, the hauler requirement, which has been changed multiple times and has been the subject of much discussion and testimony at the Legislature for multiple legislative sessions, was
"For residents that compost at home, the law was written to allow them to continue to dispose of meat and bones in the trash even after this past July 1." - Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation
changed to require haulers of trash to only provide food scrap collection to nonresidential customers and apartments of four units or more unless another food scrap hauler was willing to provide the service. That is what is in state law right now.
Ahat we encourage people to do - what we've always encouraged people to do - is consider the three options. If they can compost at home, great. That certainly can potentially save them money, but it needs attention just like anything else. And then, the drop offs are a great option for some, but not all. And if they want to curbside service, there are more and more haulers willing to provide that service. And many of them need to be asked in order to see that there's a market there, and that people are willing to pay for that service.
Is there a cap on what they can charge for taking your compost?
Josh Kelly: There is not. Neither is there a cap on what they can charge for trash or what they can charge for recycling. We do not regulate the costs of solid waste.
Now, I thought haulers weren't allowed to charge you more for recycling if they're picking up your trash.
Josh Kelly: They're not allowed to charge you a separate line item on your bill if they come to you at your curb if you're a residential customer, so it has to be a bundled service.
Why compost? Here's what the experts say
So, Josh was telling us a moment ago that 20% of our waste stream is made up of food scraps. Why is it so important to get that out of the waste stream if it’s biodegradable?
Dana Gunders: When food scraps go to the landfill, they decompose and they basically rot and produce methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. And so that is one really important reason to try to get food scraps out of landfills. But also, food scraps have a lot of nutrients in them still. And so we're really wasting those nutrients when we could be eventually recycling them and using them again.
"When food scraps go to the landfill, they decompose and they basically rot and produce methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas." - Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED
I would also point out, Josh said food is the number one product going into landfills in Vermont. That's actually true across the country. And when you stop and think about that, it's pretty crazy. A lot of that food is not just the banana peels and the coffee grounds, but it's actually perfectly good food that could have been eaten at one point if we had managed our food better.
And so part of this is about composting. But part of it, as he mentioned, is about really making sure that we're using our food as best we can, that we're managing it so that a lot of it doesn't turn into a science experiment in the back of our fridge. And when we do that, whether we're a household or a business, we save quite a bit of money.
So you don't think this is too hard to comply with for Vermonters?
Dana Gunders: Well, I will say a couple things about this. The first is that this is a precedent-setting law across the entire country. There is no other state that has made it to the point where they're asking their residents to compost. So Vermonters are really setting a standard for the rest of the country by doing this.
And in that they're going to be able to achieve in Vermont all sorts of benefits that other states are not achieving. And the benefits of composting are, as we talked about, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling nutrients. That means that less synthetic fertilizer will need to be used in the state. And also there are the benfits of improving soil quality and the ability of soil to capture water.
Actually, in gardens and farms that use compost, they need less water to water their plants. And there have even been some studies out in California that show that when compost is spread on land that is used for grazing, that it has a multiplier effect on the amount of greenhouse gases that the soil is able to absorb and sequester.
Composting FAQs answered
So for backyard compost, meat and bones can go in the trash. What about fish, poultry and dairy?
Josh Kelly: Same for fish and poultry. I have never heard of dairy being a problem for backyard composting, unless it's a massive amount of stuff. Anything that was once food can return back into soil, and dairy is no different in this case.
What about waste from pets and animals, including their waste and bedding?
Carolina Lukac: If the animal is an herbivore, you can generally consider their waste and bedding OK for compost, like chicken and rabbits. But for pets like cats and dogs, you don’t want the waste to be included in the compost because it has pathogens in it. So it’s really animal-specific.
How do you keep critters (big and small) out of compost?
Josh Kelly: We've gotten this call from folks a lot and have been working with Fish and Wildlife, specifically bear biologist Forrest Hammond, for three-plus years now, if not more, around this issue.
"Ultimately, if you really want to compost at home, it's just like with bears and chickens or bears and beehives: Electric fencing is recommended by Fish and Wildlife around your bin." — Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation
Both Fish and Wildlife and DEC’s composting web pages have guidance about composting in bear country. And a lot of it is what you've just heard: add brown material, turn the material. The faster you get your food waste to break down, the quicker it's not an attractant to any animal, bear or otherwise.
Sometimes tumbler composter bins are good because they turn the material very easily and can, especially in the summertime, effectively compost if you're adding those carbon-rich materials like leaves and wood shavings to your food waste. They're also enclosed, so they're not as easily opened.
But ultimately, if you really want to compost at home, it's just like with bears and chickens or bears and beehives: Electric fencing is recommended by Fish and Wildlife around your bin. Some people even have their bees and their compost bins right next to each other with an electric fence around both.
Now, that may be a bigger investment than other folks want to make, so we really just recommend "stop and drop" if you have a bear issue and this bear is coming back to your house. No one is asking you to take a risk to your health, your safety because of bear issues. Take your scraps to a drop off and stop composting at home if you're having that repeated issue.
If you're in bear country, an ammonia-soaked rag added to any composting system can deter some critters like bear. But ultimately, the electric fence might be the final deterrent. And electric fencing is really only effective if you bait it. People who are beekeepers know that you can put a bit of tuna fish or peanut butter on aluminum foil, and place it on your electric fence. Once the bear gets that shock, they learn what that fence is.
But if they push their body up against it, it doesn't have the same effect. They have to touch it with their nose. Anyway, we're getting into the details, but that's what we recommend.
Carolina Lukac: I would say discouraging [bears] to the extent possible [is the key]. So quickening that pace of decomposition is important. You can do that by adding those brown materials, using the pallet system similar to what I have in my backyard and by including some kind of hardware like wire meshing, so that smaller rodents can’t get in.
And I find that even if there are rodents visiting, if you turn your compost more frequently, add some brown material, maybe stop composting for a few weeks, usually you're able to deter them, encourage them to move along their way, allowing you to continue composting.
What backyard composting techniques do you recommend?
Josh Kelly: I like one that is called a solar digester. And there's a few companies that make these. But the Green Cone is probably the most common one. If you've seen an orange traffic cone on the side of the road, it looks like that - just larger and green with the top cut off.
"Compostable bags generally don't break down well in home composting piles." - Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation
There's a lid on the top that's flat, and the rest of the two-part unit is actually below ground. The part that's below ground really is just a plastic basket. It looks like one of those old round laundry baskets, with holes in it to allow soil bacteria and microbes to get at the food waste. The basket is attached to the cone on top, and you actually dig a hole into the ground and put this this basket in, attached to the cone on top, and return the soil around it. So it's kind of a hole in the ground where the food scraps are deposited.
The advantage of it is that with this close contact with soil bacteria and worms, it will really break down your food waste. A lot of your food waste is water. In fact, if you dehydrate food waste, it would be very, very small by itself.
So the cone does not fill up that quickly. Like anything, it could fill up over time, but it doesn't produce any food waste or compost; rather, you actually are just are adding nutrients to the soil passively through the unit. So many people put them in their flower gardens.
You don't want to dump your leaves in there because then you'll fill up the unit really quickly. So, you just put your food scraps in it. I like it because it's a "set it and forget it" method.
If you’re dropping off food waste at a transfer station, can you bring it to the site in plastic bags? Compostable bags?
Josh Kelly: Ask the location first what they accept because the standards are different. Different places differ when it comes to compostable bags. Oftentimes, we have people who say drop off location doesn’t accept compostable bags or compostable packaging-type products and so they use plastic bags, just like with trash. But they empty the bag when they're dropping off the material that the bag is in because the bag is a contaminant. Nobody wants a plastic bag showing up in their garden.
So a simple plastic trash bag can work for this purpose. Many people use a five gallon bucket and line it with a plastic bag. They just dispose of that plastic bag after using it for the drop off. So that's one option.
And if you use backyard compost, compostable bags generally don't break down well in home composting piles. There are a few industrial scale composters who do take compostable bags and are able to have them break down. But it's because of those temperatures that we're talking about. One hundred and forty degrees are maintained for days on end, which makes them able to break down those compostable bags.
If you're unsure if your bag is compostable, it needs to have a certified compostable label on it. The BPI label is one that's a pretty common industry standard from Biodegradable Products Institute.