Food Recovery Summit Tackles Food Waste and Composting Issues

The Mid-Atlantic Food Recovery Summit and Eighth Annual Food Day tackled the challenging issues of reducing food scraps from the solid waste stream. The Summit was hosted by Bowie State University, in partnership with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on October 24 and drew several hundred attendees. MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp attended.

As part of the opening comments, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles stressed the need for “innovative approaches and strategies to reduce, reuse, and redistribute” food and food waste. Grumbles stated that MDE was committed to expanding composting and anaerobic digestion in the state.

EPA Region 3 Deputy Regional Administrator Cecil Rodriguez noted that “redirecting food we waste annually would have $10 billion in economic benefits” and that there are already roughly 50,000 jobs throughout the US due to food rescue, recovery, and recycling.

Several Keynote Speakers detailed the overall scope of the food waste program. EPA Region 3 Sustainability Coordinator Tom O’Donnell stated that both big and small-scale efforts were needed to meet the national 50% food waste diversion goal by 2030. O’Donnell stated that homes and consumer-facing businesses (restaurants, the hospitality industry, grocery stores, etc.) account for almost 83% of the food waste generated in the US. Farms account for another 16%. O’Donnell also stressed the importance of both education and outreach.

Montgomery County Department of the Environment Acting Director Patty Bubar discussed the County’s executive order to reduce food waste by 70% by 2020. Bubar stated that about 147,000 tons of food scraps are disposed of each year in the County and Maryland must increase its processing capacity through new or expanded food composting facilities. Bubar stated that funding assistance is also critical. Bubar concluded by noting that the County has recently released a strategic plan that will target food waste from the commercial sector.

Other panels addressed the gaps in surplus food donation and building food recycling infrastructure in the Mid-Atlantic region. Howard Lee from the District of Columbia (DC) Office of Waste Diversion discussed how DC was taking a multi-pronged approach to increase composting and food recycling infrastructure within its boundaries. Lee described how DC is looking at community composting, school composting, backyard composting incentives, curbside collection, and an in-district compost site. Lee stressed that DC wanted to collect food and yard waste together and not have to transfer them outside of DC in order to be processed.

Laura Cassidy from the City of Philadelphia Department of Prisons described how the City went about instituting a composting program for prisons, starting with an 800 inmate women’s facility as a pilot. The program is now moving forward to prisons and has expanded to include growing healthy food and providing green job training for inmates.

BTS Bioenergy Director of Organics Vinnie Bevivino discussed anaerobic digestion (breaking down waste products without using combustion). Bevivino noted that anaerobic digestion worked well for meat, fruits, vegetables, grease, oils, fats, bones and dairy but was less effective for paper or wood products. The process creates methane which can be burned as energy and a compost that qualifies as a “Class A soil amendment” (meaning it is safe to use anywhere). Bevivino also described the large anaerobic facility that will open at the site of the Maryland Food Center in Jessup at the end of 2019. The facility will generate about 3 megawatts of energy daily and large amounts of soil for construction or agriculture.

The Summit concluded with several break-out sessions addressing: (1) developing college and university food recovery programs; (2) waste reduction in the hospitality industry; and (3) food recovery in the agricultural sector.