Initiative seeks to tackle food waste


In response to the environmental and financial costs of exporting food waste off-Island, the Food Waste Initiative is advocating for investment in local composting infrastructure. In a virtual chat hosted early Thursday evening, project director Eunice Youmans explained the need for local food-waste processes and the potential benefits behind large-scale composting. 

According to Youmans, food waste presents both an environmental and economic issue for the Island. A significant contributor to climate change, food waste emits 8 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year. 

The Food Waste Initiative reports that Martha’s Vineyard exports 6,500 tons of food waste off-Island each year, accumulating in 621 trucks and displacing 2,500 cars on the ferry. More significantly, it projects that between 2025 and 2040, food waste will cost Vineyarders $19.4 million in total. 

Additionally, nearly half of all Massachusetts food waste, including that of the Island, is disposed of illegally. As the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection plans to expand the food waste ban in 2022 to include smaller-scale food waste producers, this proportion will likely rise. “We do not have the infrastructure on the Island to comply with the law today,” according to the Food Waste Initiative report. 

The solution? Local food waste collection and composting. “If we process food waste on the Island, we know it’s profitable, sustainable, and climate-smart,” Youmans said.

The Food Waste Initiative is advocating for the installation of an Island in-vessel drum, a machine the size of a tractor-trailer that can compost food items without producing an odor or attracting vermin. 

Large-scale local composting would have both short- and long-term environmental benefits for the Island. When reintroduced to the ecosystem, compost enriches and restores soil, improving local agriculture. Additionally, composted soils sequester 27,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide per acre than untreated soils.

The financial benefits are also convincing. Between 2025 and 2040, an in-vessel drum that processes 4,000 tons of food waste per year could save Vineyarders $11.2 million, and create $5.8 million in additional revenue. 

“What we proved between 2016 and today is that there is absolutely a market demand for food waste collection, and there is also a huge market demand for local compost,” said Youmans. “We know this is a viable business model.”

An in-vessel drum capable of processing 6,500 tons of food waste per year would cost an estimated $9.8 million. While the Food Waste Initiative can demonstrate long-term profit for the Island collectively, confirming profit for each town is more difficult. Since municipal waste is only around 18 percent of all waste exported annually, no individual town will benefit significantly on paper from food waste diversion. This questionable financial case, combined with current COVID-19 financial burdens and the upcoming MVRHS sports complex overhaul, has created additional challenges for the Food Waste Initiative. Currently, they are working with each town to reimagine on-Island composting at-scale, including a potential decentralized system rather than the in-vessel drum.

“The future of the composting initiative is certain. We’re all working across the Island on this, we’re all committed to this,” Youmans said. “The question is, how are we going to manage it? How are we going to fund it? The best way to do that is by talking to each town and finding the best solution for each town.”