Composting Big Time in Beantown: What MA is Doing with Their Leftovers and Other Stories

by Anna McColgan for SUST 240

Massachusetts is a state steeped in history. From sports teams to educational institutions, we pride ourselves largely on our past. Despite this persistent culture of nostalgia, some recent news may be placing Massachusetts closer to the front of the waste diversion movement. According to the article “Massachusetts’ New Composting Rules: What They Really Mean,” published in The Boston Globe and written by Chris Perdik, Massachusetts is banning the disposal of organic waste exceeding one ton per week in landfills, in the hopes of establishing an infrastructure that enables the majority of organic waste, at least that produced at the commercial level, to be composted. The article outlines a number of challenges that may come along with this new regulation.

Firstly, Perdik addresses the issue of consumer knowledge and behavior by interviewing Matthew King, the food service director at the New England Aquarium, which has been composting its organic waste for the past four years. King discusses the difficulty of having individuals misunderstand the separation process, not knowing what to put in the compost, what the compost is, or where it goes. “The sorting is easy to control with our staff,” he says, “because you have a limited number of people to train. With the public, it’s like you have to train every one of them.”

Massive piles at the WM large-scale compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (A. McColgan, 2014)

Massive piles at the WM large-scale compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (A. McColgan, 2014)

This is a persistent issue with many sustainability efforts. Our SUST 240 Waste & Consumption class witnessed this firsthand when we toured a Waste Management recycling sorting center on the far South Side of Chicago and even when touring the waste facilities of our own university. Folks just don’t know how or what to recycle sometimes, even if they might have good intentions. And therein also lies an inherent conflict in the desire and necessity to make diversion simple and accessible for consumers and making it an effective process. The concept of single-stream recycling — where residents put everything in one bin and where materials are sorted at the centralized recycling centers — makes it a lot more possible for the majority of the citizenry to participate in movements toward sustainability, but causes a slew of other problems on the sorting end of the recycling process, as we saw during our tour: from putting the wrong stuff in the bin to contamination to leaving recycling in plastic bags that inevitably clog sorting machines.

So while we are consistently left with a question of how to make recycling accessible and also effective, this focus on individual behavior at the point of disposal does not address some of the bigger problems with the way we handle waste. This is why laws like that being enacted by Massachusetts that place the onus on commercial producers to divert large percentages of waste can be so beneficial.

But another question that this article poses in regards to the new regulation is, where to take the food waste? At this time, there are not sufficient external composting facilities to meet the coming demand in Massachusetts for food waste disposal, and the process is not an easy one. Our class had the chance to visit an industrial-scale composting farm and saw massive piles of mostly yard and some food waste in various stages of decomposition. The one pile that looked the most like usable soil had been in process for at least a year.

Piles of shredded currency found at WM's compost site on Chicago's far South Side (photo: A. McColgan, 2014)

Piles of shredded currency found at WM’s compost site on Chicago’s far South Side (photo: A. McColgan, 2014)

But the most interesting thing we found while touring their facilities was an astounding amount of shredded currency, some in large piles, some spread along the ground, presumably taken out of circulation by the Federal Reserve and shipped there for disposal. This oddity pointed to one of the biggest questions I ask myself when scrolling through news articles about new waste diversion efforts (a frequent pastime, of course), which is simply: who’s getting paid?

There is a substantial history of folks in the environmental movement trying to make sustainability a fiscally beneficial enterprise for businesses, but that changes the way that waste diversion gets done. For example, the new organic material being diverted from landfills in Massachusetts and shuttled to a centralized location for industrial-scale composting itself requires the use of resources (such as fuel) and produces various types of waste. If it weren’t profitable for Waste Management and other haulers to do this — make compost and sell it to consumers — it may not have been diverted at all. As a Bostonian myself, I’ll be interested to see how Massachusetts chooses to grapple with these many challenges in the implementation of this new law.

This still leaves the question for all advocates of environmental sustainability to incorporate into our already hyper-complicated dialogue: is making sustainability profitable really ever going to change the material consumption and waste production patterns of the United States that make our future tenuous? And if not, then can we make change without someone making a profit?

Source: Berdik, C. (2014, September 28). Massachusetts’ New Composting Rules: What They Really Mean; How a Regulation Designed to Keep Food Waste out of Landfills Will Affect Restaurants, Supermarkets, and You. The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-37221684.html

Each week during the Fall 2014 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 210 Sustainable Future and SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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