Maine households are worst offenders on food waste, according to DEP study

Featured, Maine Monitor

Every year, we waste the equivalent of more than 9,000 fully loaded semi-trailer trucks. Close to half of the solid waste stream in Maine is made up of organics, according to a study released by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in late May.

By Kate Cough — The Maine Monitor

Last spring around this time, I was in my driveway with my dad, wrestling with the barrel of a massive steel compost tumbler I’d bought on the advice of Wirecutter. It was far too large for our tiny, in-town lot, and I didn’t yet have an answer for where we were going to put all of the actual compost it generated. (Friends want periodic deliveries of dirt, right?) 

But there are few things I believe in more than the value of composting, so my husband kept quiet (mostly) as I dragged it around the driveway, looking for a suitable spot.

Close to half – 40 percent – of the solid waste stream in Maine is made up of organics, according to a study released by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in late May. Every year, we waste around 361,000 tons of food, the equivalent of more than 9,000 fully loaded semi-trailer trucks. 

Households are the worst offenders, accounting for around 35 percent of all the food waste in the state. Agriculture is next, at 25 percent, followed by food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants. 

The state’s most populous counties, Cumberland and York, generate the most residential food waste, but the report doesn’t specify how much per household. An audit of several U.S. cities conducted in 2017 found that the average household generates 452.4 pounds of food waste per year.

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It’s pretty obvious why we don’t want to waste food, so I won’t belabor it here. But I will note a few numbers that always stun me, no matter how many times I hear them. The first is that roughly half of the world’s habitable land — land that isn’t barren or covered in ice — is used for farming. And of that, 75 percent is grazing land, mostly for cattle. The rest is used to grow crops.

That means we’re expending huge amounts of resources on vast tracts of land to grow food that, in many cases, winds up in landfills, where it emits greenhouse gasses and contributes to climate change. Globally, food waste emits more greenhouse gasses than the aviation industry, according to a 2020 report by the lntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At the household level, the first step in reducing the amount of food we toss out is, of course, actual reduction: shopping in our pantries before we shop at the store. But composting also plays a huge role, and for those who can’t compost at home, commercial facilities are essential.

Maine is the only state in New England without some kind of organic recycling law. A recent bill aimed at supporting food waste diversion did not make it through the funding process this year.

The state has eight operational facilities that can process food waste, but they’re mostly small — six are licensed for up to 365 tons, according to the DEP study.

The largest — on a dairy farm in Penobscot County — is licensed for up to 80,000 tons, but as of 2022, according to reporting by Maine Public, was processing about half that. And half of what it was processing was coming from outside the state. 

On Mount Desert Island, where I live, the commercial composting options are limited. Chickadee Compost, which is based in Surry, serves towns around the Blue Hill peninsula; the closest pickup is about half an hour from me, in Ellsworth. 

Chickadee would like to expand onto the island, founder Kate Tomkins told me when I inquired, but has struggled to find a suitable spot for pickup, in part because Bar Harbor’s waste disposal contract with the Municipal Review Committee (the organization that manages the beleaguered Hampden waste facility) prevents pickup at the transfer station, the most natural spot.

Our compost bin lasted about a month in our driveway before we gave up and trucked it to a friend’s house on the other side of the island. Once every couple of weeks, she swings by after her grocery run to grab our bucket and empty it into the bin, which sits happily in a grassy field, churning out black soil.

This story is from The Maine Monitor, whose mission is to deliver fearless, independent, citizen-supported, nonpartisan journalism that informs Mainers about the issues impacting our state and inspires them to take action. Through investigative and in-depth stories, The Maine Monitor engages readers to participate and connect to create a better Maine. Maine Coast TV is a media partner of The Maine Monitor

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