Taking the Bite Out of Food Waste

Uneaten food takes up valuable space in landfills and produces climate-damaging methane when left to rot. Here's how New England is leading the nation in solving this preventable problem.

By Pam Reynolds

Uneaten food takes up valuable space in landfills and produces climate-damaging methane when left to rot. Here’s how New England is leading the nation in solving this preventable problem.

When Nicole Carrier opened Throwback Brewery, a restaurant, brewery, and farm in North Hampton, New Hampshire, she knew from the outset that she would operate sustainably, especially when it comes to any food that goes uneaten.

For Carrier, who founded the business in 2010 with co-owner Annette Lee, a former environmental engineer, finding ways to avoid food waste was a “no-brainer.” That’s because not only does food waste in landfills damage the climate due to the methane gas it releases, but it also contributes to food insecurity since unused food could be eaten by people in need.

“It’s all intrinsically linked together,” says Carrier.

Nothing gets thrown away at Throwback, whose name references the small, locally sourced breweries common before Prohibition. When Carrier’s brewer makes beer, the spent hops are sent to Throwback’s farm, where the pigs get a satisfying meal. When the pigs are fattened and ready, they end up in the kitchen – as pork sliders, carnitas, or porky fig toast. Throwback’s farmers meet with the restaurant’s head chef daily to discuss what’s getting picked in the field so it can be included in that day’s menu. Unused produce gets donated to food banks. And, when customers can’t finish their meal, they’re supplied with compostable containers to take the leftovers home. Anything remaining on plates or in the kitchen gets scraped into a bucket for the animals. Or it gets composted right on the farm. And if, after all that, anything is left, it gets put into four 64-gallon totes that a local composting firm picks up each week.

Thanks to a new law passed last June, Carrier will soon have more company in her quest to reduce New Hampshire’s food waste, which accounts for nearly 24% of the municipal solid waste dumped into the state’s landfills. The law, which takes effect in February 2025, prohibits entities that produce more than a ton of organic waste each week – food wholesalers and distributors, industrial food manufacturers, hospitals, or large colleges, for example – from disposing of that waste in a landfill or waste incinerator. Instead, that establishment must follow a disposal hierarchy that begins with donation but includes sending the waste to a composting facility if one can be found within a 20-mile radius.

The law responds to one stunning fact: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the single most common material landfilled in the country – and it is responsible for the equivalent of 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. The methane produced by landfilled food waste is more potent in warming our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

“Landfills are the third greatest human-caused source of methane emissions in the country, largely due to food waste,” says Nora Bosworth, staff attorney for CLF’s Zero Waste Project, which works to reduce the amount of trash produced across New England. “So, from a climate change perspective alone, food scraps diversion is a no-brainer.”

Incentivizing a Composting Culture

New Hampshire’s food waste law is intended to encourage more sustainable food waste practices across the state. Sponsored by State Representative Karen Ebel and supported by CLF and our partners, the law is the latest development making New England a leader in ending food waste. Over the past dozen years, CLF has helped push five out of six New England states to prohibit institutions creating large amounts of food waste from dumping that waste into landfills. (While Maine does not yet have a law, CLF is leading the effort to get one passed in the 2024 legislative session.) Some states, like Connecticut and Vermont, have had food waste laws in place for years, while others have only recently come to the table. In every case, community activists, business owners, and legislators have seen the wisdom of tackling a problem that is obvious and relatively easy to solve.

“There are much better things we can be doing with food than throwing it in a landfill or burning it,” says Ebel.

The New Hampshire law was modeled after Vermont’s legislation, according to Ebel. It aims to empty landfills of waste that never should have been dumped there to begin with – saving taxpayers money while sparking a composting culture. The law includes $1 million for the state’s solid waste management fund, 50% of which will be used to fund projects developing strategies and infrastructure to keep food waste out of landfills. And once entrepreneurs understand there is a growing market for recycling food scraps, they’re likely to jump in to create the industrial composting facilities needed to fully support the law.

“There’s this chicken and egg issue,” says Ebel, “because you need the facilities to accept the waste. But the thing is that businesses are very unlikely to put facilities in place unless they know that they have the source product: the food waste stream.”

Policymakers have laid the groundwork to make that easier on both a large and a small scale. In March 2022, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services rewrote its composting regulations to encourage a broader range of facilities to process all food scraps, including meat and dairy, in a simpler permitting process. Those new regulations allow small-scale food waste drop-off sites and community composting facilities to collect and store up to one cubic yard of food waste, enabling food co-ops and other community centers to function as collection points without needing a solid waste facility permit.

Ebel also hopes the new law will educate the public about the importance of composting, laying out the food recovery hierarchy so evident at Throwback Brewery. That hierarchy states that excess food should be donated to people first, then offered to animals, and lastly, get composted or anaerobically digested. None of it should ever end up in a landfill.

“This is a tangible thing,” reflects Ebel. “You take your food scraps, you put them in a bucket, and you can make soil out of them. For grocery stores and restaurants and places like that, anything you can do to help get more food to the hungry is crucial. It’s something people can do and believe that the ultimate result will be what they hope and expect it to be. The less we can be putting in landfills, the better.”

Leading the Way in Vermont

New Hampshire is the latest state to join the food waste ban movement, but states in which food waste laws have been in place for years provide a salient example of how a composting culture can catch on. Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, passed in 2012, is now the most comprehensive of any state in the region. Between 2014 and 2017, when the law applied only to food businesses and institutions, food donations nearly tripled. In 2020, the regulations extended to residential homes, and residents have gotten into the habit of separating their food scraps into buckets and either using either local food waste drop-offs or curbside haulers to take it away. Many Vermonters now compost in their backyards.

CLF’s Bosworth says that what Vermont started so many years ago will one day become standard across the country. Similar laws have already been passed in New York and California, and CLF aims to see every New England state follow suit. The food waste issue, she says, “is starting to be recognized on both a state and a national level.” And that’s critical, she says, if we are going to end the region’s dependence on massive landfills that pollute our air, water, and climate. 

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, large institutions that had developed wasteful habits will be joining Throwback Brewery to make sure nothing goes to waste. And more residents, too, may also take notice and begin composting at home or through a curbside service.

“You would spend less on composting if you did a better job on the front end,” says Carrier. Her commitment to what she calls a “circle of sustainability” has become so central to her business model that her ethos has even made it onto the establishment’s t-shirt: “Drink a beer, feed a pig.”

The Food Waste Hierarchy

The food waste hierarchy offers guidelines for the most effective ways to reduce waste – starting with preventing food waste in the first place. The inverted pyramid structure emphasizes that sending food waste to landfills should be the last option considered, given the harm it does to people and the environment. However, the reality of today’s waste systems is that too often landfilling is the first and only option.

Policymakers frequently point to the food waste hierarchy in state-level waste management plans as proof that they are addressing this escalating problem. But a colorful chart on paper does not always translate to policy in action. That’s why CLF and its partners are working to make the principles of the food waste hierarchy a reality – for the sake of our climate and our communities.

The Food Waste Hierarchy