New state regulations in effect Tuesday have cut in half the amount of food waste that can legally be thrown in the trash.
The change shouldn't affect anyone at home, given that the new limit is 1,000 pounds of food waste a week. State environmental officials estimate the stricter limit will impact about 2,000 businesses in the state, including supermarkets, cafeterias and large restaurants.
The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that Massachusetts throws a million tons of food waste in the garbage per year, accounting for more than a quarter of state's the waste stream. As of now, less than 10% of food waste is diverted from disposal, the DEP estimates.
There's a range of ways businesses can comply with the food waste ban, said John Fischer, the DEP's deputy division director for solid waste.
"One thing that's important to note is that to comply with the ban, you don't have to eliminate all of your food waste," Fischer said. "You have to separate and eliminate enough food waste that you are below the ban threshold [of 1,000 pounds a week]."
Once a business gets below that amount, though, Fischer said, it's often in their interest to go further.
"Once you have a food waste separation or diversion program, it typically works better when you capture more food waste," he said.
Many businesses separate out their food waste and contract with a waste hauler, which then uses that waste as animal feed, for composting or for anaerobic digestion. A regulation in effect since 2014 has capped food waste at one ton — or 2,000 pounds — per week for the last eight years.
Fischer said many businesses find the food they're disposing of is suitable for donation.
"We've also found a lot of businesses, when they start separating their food waste, find out that they're surprised by how much food waste they have," Fischer said. "And what that often prompts them to do — in addition to donation — is to look at opportunities to prevent and reduce food waste at the source, just through more efficient kitchen operations."
Food waste generation varies widely in the industry, and it can be difficult to track how much is being disposed of, said Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
"The DEP has done a good job of making technical assistance available for restaurant owners who may be at or below the threshold that have an interest in diverting food waste from the system," Clark said. "There are a number of restaurants that have taken the proactive step without falling within the threshold."
Advocates for waste reduction would like to see the state go further.
The nonprofit advocacy group Just Zero is pressing for the state to go further with an all-out ban on disposal of food scraps by 2025. The group also wants to see an end to programs that mix food waste with sewage sludge, like the municipal program in Cambridge.
"Staff at MassDEP should be commended for getting hundreds of thousands of tons of food out of the trash each year," said Just Zero's executive director Kirstie Pecci.
"However, we need to take this to the next level as soon as possible, and ensure that we are not burning or burying any food. Our new food waste system needs to prioritize reducing food waste, feeding people, and keeping food scraps clean so it can feed animals or become nutrient-rich fertilizer, not a new toxic waste product."