By Evan Johnson
RUTLAND—The Hunger Council of Rutland County describes Act 148, also known as the Universal Recycling Law, as the most significant change to Vermont’s solid waste system in recent history. The law focuses on reducing food waste, with the goal of eliminating food waste from the waste stream by 2020. At its quarterly meeting at Green Mountain College on Monday, May 22, local and statewide experts discussed the new law, how it will be implemented, and what it will mean for getting food to those who need it.
Originally passed in 2012, the law calls for a gradual phasing in of measures that eliminate all food waste from landfills. Transfer stations accept recyclables at no extra cost and food scrap generators have to progressively divert more food away from landfills. In July, generators of 18 tons of food scraps per year will have to divert food scraps to a certified facility within 20 miles. In July of 2018, trash haulers will begin curbside food scrap collection.
Since 2014, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Rebecca Webber said the volume of incoming trash has decreased and the amount of recycling has increased.
Act 148 also includes a “food recovery hierarchy” that prioritizes reducing food waste at the source and rescuing quality foods for
people whenever possible.
It’s in this area that the Hunger Council sees a major opportunity.
“We want usable food to be used,” Webber said.
Reducing waste at the source
Organizations all over Vermont are devising creative solutions to make sure produced food is consumed. In schools, leftover fruits are available in classrooms. Some schools have shared coolers where students and their families can pick up something on the way in or out of school.
Beth Yon of the Vermont Department of Health said strong “Good Samaritan” laws allow schools to negotiate stringent food safety laws for serving food. “There are people that have cracked this nut,” she said.
At Green Mountain College, the group Creative Composters has been working to reduce the amount of food thrown away, hosting a “meatless Monday” meal and rescuing uneaten servings for community meals in Poultney.
The Vermont Foodbank, too, has a network for rescuing food and then redistributing it. In 2014, they started the Retail Partner Agency program to connect retailers with the shared foods network. Genna Williams, manager for the Rutland branch of the Vermont Foodbank, attributed the foodbank’s ability to distribute 12.1 million pounds of food last year to their ability to rescue food. Last year, 45 partner organizations rescued 1.6 million pounds of food from 48 retail locations around the state.
“That’s a 40 percent increase in food rescue over the past year and that is really because of Act 148 and changes in the law that are forcing retailers to feed the food through our stream of distribution,” she said.
The Vermont Foodbank has also created a guide for organizations to understand what kinds of rescued foods can be accepted and how to distribute it safely.
Food that is not fit for human consumption can be fed to pigs or used in composting and anaerobic digestion. Rutland currently has no composting facility. The nearest locations are in Middlebury and Bennington.
“An awesome chance”
With more food available comes new challenges in logistics and public outreach.
In so-called “food deserts,” where a food shelf is in a remote location, there may not be a retailer to rescue food from.
Other organizers have problems with receiving too much, particularly of one variety or food that is not especially nutritious. When agencies find their pantries or freezers full, they contact other organizations to find space.
Richard Gallo with the Vermont Veterans Outreach said the council would have to explore a network of transportation, pick-up locations and collection schedules.
Hunger Council organizer Jenna Banning said “We have an awesome chance. We have some years to develop that system.”