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Food Equity and Recovery: An Interview with Sophie Abrams Mazza

As is thoroughly documented by a 2017 report from the National Resources Defense Council, food waste is one of the most important challenges facing the world today. The environmental implications are huge – the greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food are the equal of 37 million cars – but so are the economic, social, and humanitarian stakes.  

Taking the lead on these issues at the local level is Island Grown Initiative's Food Equity and Recovery program. Though relatively new, the program has already done much to reduce both the sources of food waste (for example, through gleaning programs and coordination with service organizations to distribute the produce) and to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in the trash. Building on the Island Food Rescue project, which has successfully diverted over 100 tons of waste to farms for composting, the program has recently begun collecting residential food waste at three local transfer stations.

We recently caught up with program director Sophie Abrams Mazza to check on how the new program was going.

VCS: Now that the food waste collection program at the town transfer stations has been up and running for a while, how much are you collecting? How much does it vary by town?

SAM: Collection began at the Edgartown Transfer Station at the end of July and on average we are picking up 100 lbs. of food waste there per week. Collection at the West Tisbury and Chilmark drop offs didn’t start until December. It’s been variable, but more like 50 lbs. per week at those.

As more people find out about the service and begin to utilize it, I hope to see those numbers increase. We’re also hoping to set up residential drop-offs in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury this year as well, which will help. There is an estimated 4,800 tons of residential food waste created on the island each year.

Are you still hoping to increase the total amount of food waste you collect, or are you nearing capacity? If the latter, what are most significant limiting factors in your system? Do you need more capacity at farms to compost the waste, more storage at transfer stations, more resources for transporting material?

In 2017 we picked up 80 tons of food waste, commercial and residential combined. We could handle a little more, but to really increase our capacity we would need to invest in a larger truck or an actual garbage truck. We also need more composting infrastructure. We’ve had some success working with different Island farms to compost food waste, but composting takes a lot of time and labor, and our farmers’ main focus is on growing delicious local food for us!

In the big picture, without a large-scale higher-technology system like an in-vessel composter, the amount of food waste we can process locally will be limited. We’ve found composting in outdoor windrows difficult because of pests, and we don’t want to be feeding species that are going to eat our endangered species. A large-scale, enclosed composting system that could handle a larger volume of food waste would make a huge difference.

A lot of people, especially up-Island, have already been composting food waste at home. Home composting can be great for waste reduction (and your garden too), but un-enclosed backyard compost piles provide food supplements for unwanted pest animals like crows and rats, generalist predators that can be very harmful to other wildlife, including our threatened shorebirds. Do you have any thoughts on how we can encourage home composters to either improve their systems or bring their waste to the transfer stations? Which seems more realistic?

Yes, exactly right! Home composting is an excellent option when done properly, and for those that can’t or don’t want to compost at home, bringing it to the transfer station provides another great option. We make sure to keep our containers critter-free, and have been doing our best to discourage pests by using best practices at the farms.

Unfortunately, I have heard from some people that they just throw their food waste in the woods! So, we really need to continue educating residents that well-intentioned actions like those are detrimental to wildlife. To that end, we’ve offered composting workshops at the IGI Farm Hub. I think encouraging people to use enclosed composting systems at home can work, but we have to remember that the rats and skunks are ruthless!

Ultimately, we feel it’s important to have both options, and the more we can help to provide useful information on best home composting practices, the better.

In the 4 towns within the MV Refuse District, recycling is encouraged through the prices paid by the end user at the transfer station: trash is “Pay-as-You-Throw”, but recycling is free. Even though global economic conditions have made co-mingled recyclables nearly worthless, to the point that in many cases it costs more to haul away recyclables than trash, towns and the Refuse District have kept this incentive in place through increased funding (i.e. tax dollars) and raising other fees.

This is all a big wind-up to asking: Even though the current cost of dropping off food waste at the transfer stations is very low – only $2 – it’s still a cost that might discourage some folks from putting in any effort to separate their food waste (or to give up their backyard compost pile). Have you thought about ways to eliminate that fee, and/or other ways to motivate folks that are reluctant to separate food waste?

If you’re throwing your food waste in the trash, you’re paying for it when you dispose of that trash. So, the fee to dispose of food waste isn’t an extra fee, it’s just a separate one. If you’re composting in your back yard and are able to keep animals out, then great, we’d encourage you to keep doing that.

Of course, we would love to offer the service for free, but I’m not sure how that would be possible. We already do a great deal of fundraising to keep the program going, and it costs a lot to process food waste, so somewhere in the chain of events there is a cost imposed that needs to be covered. Maybe it could be covered by taxes, but I’m not sure if people would want that either.

It’s important to realize that the fees people pay to dispose of trash doesn’t begin to take into account the environmental costs that we have been paying and will be paying in the future. Right now our waste system is an open system: we truck food waste off-Island in the trash to a landfill or incinerator. In landfills, it breaks down anaerobically, producing methane (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming). Then we’re shipping compost and animal feed on-Island from places like Vermont and Maine. We’re burning fossils fuels shipping organic material in both directions. These things could be made right here on the Island with our discarded food waste, closing the loop on the food system, and reducing the environmental cost of that apple core or those forgotten leftovers.