Universal Recycling Law Brings More Food Than Expected To Hungry Vermonters

Dec 28, 2015

Vermont’s universal recycling law, Act 148, requires institutions that create large amounts of food waste to keep that food out of a landfill. And that new mandate has created an opportunity. 

Much of this so-called waste is actually high quality food that the Vermont Foodbank now redistributes to hungry Vermonters.

Surrounded by boxes of food in the warehouse at the Vermont Foodbank, Chief Operations Officer Alex Bornstein says the numbers this year have been remarkable.

“Food rescue is up 30 percent year to date. Our network partner pick ups from retail establishments are up 209 percent. Our overall waste is down 56 percent. Under half a percent of what we bring in here goes to waste, which is generally pig food or compost, it doesn't go into landfill," he said. "Our pounds distributed overall in Vermont through all of our locations are up 25 percent this year."

Through food rescue, partner agencies like local food shelves pick up unwanted food from neighborhood grocery stores to distribute. Food companies and farmers also give donations of food when there’s a labeling mistake or if the produce isn’t the right size for the wholesale market.

Holding up an undersized head of cabbage, Bornstein said, “Because these heads are so small, people were picking them up and looking at them. We had to say, 'It’s cabbage.'"

Bornstein says the Vermont Foodbank also gets bigger shipments of shelf-stable food from grocery store warehouses.

Grocery stores send unwanted food to food shelves, and companies and farmers also donate when the produce isn't the right size for the wholesale market (like this cabbage). Vermont Foodbank Chief Operations Officer Alex Bornstein says the numbers this year have been remarkable.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

“When we bring in product that is raw salvage, it comes from Hannaford in Maine, it comes from CVS, it comes from all of these different areas. It all comes into here and we have to sort through every single box,” he said. “We have to be sure that the quality is acceptable, that there’s nothing wrong with it. That it’s within the dates that are acceptable.”

On a recent day a group of volunteers, some wearing holiday sweaters, are doing the sorting. “They’re going through every single banana box. The foodbanking world runs on banana boxes,” Bornstein said.

Instead of bananas, the stacks of sturdy boxes contain an assortment of packaged products found in any grocery store.

“They’re opening every box, they’re checking  every single product. This group in three to four hours will go through thousands of products. And then they’re re-boxing them according to different categories. You can see sorted cereals, you can see desserts, and once we get some pallets full, we’ll weigh them and wrap them up,” he said.

Before the universal recycling law, 60,000 tons of food was thrown away annually. Thirty to 40 percent of that was estimated to be edible, according to the Agency of Natural Resources.

In the past much of this food would have been destined for the landfill. Now it will be sent to a local food shelf.

The Agency of Natural Resources estimates that before the universal recycling law, 60,000 tons of food was thrown away annually. Thirty to 40 percent of that was estimated to be edible. Still, environmental analyst Bryn Oakleaf says the increase in donations of food has been surprising.

“Even our own systems analysis was estimating just an uptick of a couple tons a year. But close to a 100 tons with the year to date is really fantastic,” she said.

Oakleaf says after waste reduction, the state places a priority on getting food to people instead of sending it to a landfill.

While it's a challenge to attribute the entire 30 percent increase in food rescue directly to the universal recycling law, Alex Bornstein says, the conversation around it is valuable.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

“The more that we are capturing the quality food for consumption at the upstream end through our available networks versus looking at a dozen composter, and we’re piloting anaerobic digestion projects around the state. It definitely plays a big role in how much downstream infrastructure we need,” she said.

The Foodbank's Bornstein says other anti-hunger organizations are calling for information about the food rescue program. He says while it’s a challenge to attribute the entire 30 percent increase in food rescue directly to the universal recycling law, the conversation around it is valuable.

“Vermont is being sought out for data for what we’re seeing, how the partnerships are rolling out,” Oakleaf added.

Bornstein says food rescue is one way to supplement all of the other ways they bring food to the people the organization serves. The Vermont Foodbank distributed 10 million pounds of food last year, and is on track to increase that amount to 11 million this year.

Correction, Dec. 28 9:10 a.m. The Agency of Natural Resources estimates that before the universal reccycling law went into effect, 60,000 tons of food waste was landfilled annually, not 60,000 pounds.