We averted an economic crisis by turning food waste into black gold

Rich black gold at Island Grown Initiative. —Brittany Bowker

Few foresaw the waste crisis that plagued Massachusetts in the 2030s. By 2029, global recycling markets had collapsed, and every Massachusetts landfill was closed. All state waste was exported to distant places like Alabama and Mississippi, at exorbitant prices. For mainland municipalities, the cost of disposal doubled, and transportation costs went through the roof. The costs to Martha’s Vineyard would have been exponentially higher, but Islanders had foreseen the crisis and planned for it. Because the cost of garbage is calculated by weight, and food waste is the heaviest component of solid waste, Islanders reasoned that they could limit their waste costs by keeping food waste on-Island and turning it into a needed commodity — compost to enrich the Island’s sandy soils. In 2019, Islanders exported about 6,500 tons of food waste, and not including the individual costs to Island taxpayers, that came with a yearly transport and disposal price tag of $320,000. 

At about that time, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) had expanded its food waste disposal ban, which forbade the disposal of organic waste by any business that produced more than one-half ton of food waste any given week of the year. Along with the ban, MassDEP awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly to municipalities and businesses who worked together to recycle food waste. Island businesses collaborated with the conservation commissions and boards of selectmen in each town, and with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, to win the MassDEP grants. 

As a result, and at very low local cost, Island businesses created new revenue streams, Island towns saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in disposal costs, and Martha’s Vineyard agriculture and livestock production skyrocketed. 

Martha’s Vineyard went from a tourist destination to an international model of what a sustainable community could be. People now come from all over the world to visit our farms and waste-recycling facilities to learn how to turn garbage into black gold.


Eunice Youmans is the project director for the Island Wide Food Waste Initiative, under the auspices of the Island Grown Initiative.