Massachusetts ban on commercial food waste in landfills impacts UMass dining halls

By Marie MacCune

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

In late January, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced a new ban on commercial food waste, which will affect large institutions like the University of Massachusetts.

According to the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs website, the policy affects institutions that dispose of more than one ton of organic material per week.

The ban requires such institutions to donate or repurpose reusable food and ship the remaining food waste to an anaerobic digestion facility for composting.

Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Rick Sullivan said in the office press release, “We are committed to protecting our natural resources and creating jobs as the Commonwealth’s clean energy economy grows. The disposal ban is critical to achieving our aggressive waste disposal reduction goals and it is in line with our commitment to increase clean energy production.”

Food materials and organic waste make up 25 percent of the state’s “current waste system,” according to the Office of EEA. The ban is part of the state’s goal to reduce its waste stream by 80 percent by 2050.

According to Director of Residential Dining Garett DiStefano, UMass is ahead of the game.

“UMass has been very proactive,” he said. “A key part of waste management here is that UMass dining is passionate about limiting waste. For years, we’ve been diverting our solid food waste to a composting site at a local farm.”

DiStefano described UMass’ path toward zero waste as an evolutionary process that started with the hiring of Ken Toong as the director of UMass Dining in 1998.

Since becoming a part of UMass, Toong has led many campaigns that focused on sustainability and being environmentally responsible.

“We are a trend-setter,” DiStefano said. “We feel it is our responsibility to serve the best food in the most sustainable way possible. I applaud the governor’s initiative.”

With four dining commons that serve 45,000 meals a day, that is no easy task.

According to DiStefano, “Everything you use is compostable or reusable. The plates are china, the silverware is metal and the cups glass. So we wash them and you use them again. All the napkins, chopsticks and Grab n’ Go materials are compostable. We take waste production and the environment very seriously. We want to maximize the utility of the things we have.”

Another way UMass limits waste, DiStefano said, is through its Small Plate, Big Flavor initiative, which encourages smaller portions.

“Instead of piling up with foods they want on trays, students take what they need and can go back for more if they’re still hungry,” DiStefano said.

He then said that getting rid of trays in the dining commons was originally a student initiative. Since doing so, UMass has reduced its food waste in the dining commons by 30 percent.

“Hampshire Dining Common also helps students to eat healthier and reduce waste,” he said. “It was designed as an oval because students hate long lines. When there are long lines, students take more food than they need from the station they are at because no one wants to come back and wait for more. An oval design, however, shortens lines and enables students to see their food options at other stations. This encourages students to portion themselves and (diversify) their meals.”

Reducing waste is not just about protecting the environment, according to DiStefano. There are economic reasons as well.

“Limiting waste is cost-effective. The more we reduce, reuse and recycle, the lower our cost to our students,” DiStefano said. “There’s a triple bottom-line: People, planet, profit. We need to take care of our students, our planet, and keep costs down in the process.”

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.