Island Food Rescue aims for large-scale composting facility

One person’s trash may be Sophie Abrams’ treasure.

Sophie Abrams, right, and Sakiko Isomichi are the brains and brawn behind Island Food Rescue. — Stacey Rupolo

Forty percent of the food grown in the U.S. is never eaten, and 16 million tons of food are thrown away each year. At the same time, one in six Americans do not know where their next meal will come from.

It’s statistics like these that keep Sophie Abrams, project manager of the Island Wide Organics Feasibility Study, digging through buckets of french fries, vegetable peels, and eggshells destined for a landfill.

The study started last year as a pilot program, funded by the Vineyard Vision Fellowship, to quantify how much food waste is on the Island and come up with a comprehensive plan to process it locally.

Ms. Abrams estimated that 6,500 tons of food waste is generated on Martha’s Vineyard each year — 4,800 tons from homes, and 1,700 tons from restaurants and businesses.

Not all of that waste is taken off-Island, but a significant amount is, and mixed with trash and either dumped in a landfill in New Bedford or burned at a waste-to-energy plant in Rochester. Meanwhile, things that could be made from the food waste, like compost or animal feed, are shipped to the Vineyard in large quantities.

“We kind of have an open system right now,” Ms. Abrams explained during an information session on the pilot project at the West Tisbury Public Library on May 17. The group estimated that if the Island processed all its food waste locally instead of shipping it off-Island, it would amount to $286,000 in annual savings.

Now called Island Food Rescue, the project has found a new home at Island Grown Initiative, an organization based in West Tisbury that aims to build a more resilient local food system, and hopes to expand the project’s reach. Last summer, with just one truck and a couple of drivers, the group picked up food waste from a handful of restaurants six days a week, and brought the waste to a compost site at Morning Glory Farm. In 2016, they collected 16 tons of food waste and an additional two tons from events like the Agricultural Fair and Living Local. So far this year, they’ve collected eight tons of food waste.

Act locally

The study revealed a need for a centralized composting facility on-Island, in addition to expanding current composting sites and creating new ones. Through a survey the group administered, 60 percent of residents said they composted, but many others identified a need for local drop-offs or curbside collection programs because they were unable to compost at their homes.

“Composting on farms is already happening, but it could happen on a much larger scale,” Ms. Abrams said.

She visited a number of composting facilities off-Island, and the group concluded that the Vineyard could benefit most from a centralized composting facility, one that’s fully enclosed, to handle a majority of the Island’s food waste.

Although the group identified six different approaches to composting, they determined an in-vessel composting system would be the most feasible solution, which involves enclosed and slowly rotating cylinders that blow hot air into the waste to maintain ideal temperatures to accelerate the composting process, which takes about five days, and then would require further curing for three to eight months. The system can also process leaves, wood chips, and cardboard.

The Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District is looking to restructure its facility, and could potentially house a composting system. “They have a spot on the map of their new facility’s plans that could be the home for an in-vessel composter,” Ms. Abrams said. She cautioned that an in-depth cost analysis for the different composting technologies still needs to be conducted.

The refuse district plans to restructure its traffic flow, which would potentially free up space for a composting site, manager Don Hatch told The Times on Wednesday.

Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Edgartown approved the change at town meeting, and though no plans are set for a composting site, it could be a vital part of keeping the project going, Mr. Hatch said. “I do hope we are able to do an in-vessel system of some type in the future,” he said.

With the district’s close proximity to the airport, a compost facility would have to be an in-vessel system — something contained inside a building — so it doesn’t attract birds and odors are contained, Mr. Hatch said.

Map of proposed improvements for the preexisting facility owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD).

Trash or treasure

The group brought food waste to a windrow composting system at Morning Glory Farm, where a large row of food waste is mixed with carbon sources like leaves, manure, and wood chips. It breaks down quickly and naturally at a very high temperature for a couple of weeks, and then the compost is moved, to cure for up to a year before it’s ready to be used on the farm.

Last year, Island Food Rescue partnered with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, which has had a shell recycling program to help sustain the Island’s shellfish population. Since their partnership, the Shellfish Group has had its most successful year on record, collecting thousands of pounds of shell.

In addition to the six restaurants they worked with last summer — Atria, the Port Hunter, the Square Rigger Restaurant, and Isola in Edgartown, and the Lookout Tavern and Park Corner in Oak Bluffs — the pilot has added Not Your Sugar Mamas, the Art Cliff Diner, and Wolf’s Den in Vineyard Haven. The Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown has also joined, as well as Behind the Bookstore and Black Sheep.

Recommendations made by Island Food Rescue were three-pronged and looked at reduction, recovery, and recycling. Suggestions included smaller plate options, or à la carte options, at restaurants after finding that sides to main dishes, like french fries, often ended up in the trash.

Another recommendation was selling imperfect produce at stores — food that looks funny but tastes fine. Ms. Abrams also talked about expanding the gleaning program, one of only three gleaning programs in the state, where people collect leftover crops after they’ve been harvested.

Island Grown Gleaning is one of the Vineyard’s major food-recovery programs, which takes food that can’t be sold at farms and would otherwise be wasted. According to its website, the group recovered 24,000 pounds of crop waste in 2014, and estimated that the Island has roughly 20,000 pounds of crop waste each year.

Food waste from the Art Cliff Diner, shown here. — Stacey Rupolo

About $218 billion a year is spent growing, processing, disposing of, and transporting food that’s never eaten, Ms. Abrams said; food waste that’s disposed of in a landfill produces methane gas, which is one of the leading causes of climate change.

In her summary, she said the Island is gaining momentum in finding solutions to reduce and reuse food waste. “Recycling organic waste locally means keeping this valuable resource on-Island and reducing our environmental impact, while beginning to close the loop on the Island’s food system,” she said.