Maine needs to decide what it’s going to do about the food in its waste stream. Food and other organics comprise 43 percent of Maine’s residential waste, more than paper, plastic, glass and metal. Yet, only about 5 percent of organics are composted, leaving much material in need of diversion.

Now, organics have taken center stage in the debate around Maine’s solid waste policy, but there isn’t any consensus yet on how this material can be best diverted.

A bill, LD 1578, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, proposes a big change to how the state manages solid waste by requiring producers that generate 1 ton or more of food scraps to divert that material from landfills. The bill targets grocery stores, retailers, restaurants, hotels, event and conference centers and schools within 20 miles of a compost facility.

As interest has grown in reducing the amount of organic material sent to landfills, food disposal bans have gained wide support in several states. With the exception of Maine, all New England states have commercial food disposal bans on the books, according to the U.S. Compost Council.

“Maine is falling far behind our neighboring states of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island by not having yet instituted a commercial food recovery requirement for large generators,” Sarah Lakeman, sustainable projects coordinator at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told the Environment and Natural Resources Committee during a hearing on the bill Wednesday. “The time is ripe to move forward with a proposal in Maine.”

But Maine faces a big challenge to kickstart the capacity needed to compost the large amount of food that is landfilled every year. Southern Maine is better positioned to divert food to compost facilities, with companies such as Garbage to Garden and We Compost It! competing for their share of the region’s food scraps.

In northern Maine, the options for composting are limited. The 187 towns that make up the Municipal Review Committee are weighing a new solution for dealing with their solid waste that would use organics to produce biogas. Towns that sign on would have limited ability to divert organics from their municipal waste, but their organic waste would become a marketable product.

Either way, a consensus is growing that when it comes to food, it’s better to send it anywhere — to food banks, compost piles or anaerobic digesters — but a landfill.

Ban it, they will build it

The question of where all this diverted food will be sent weighs heavily over the debate around food disposal bans. In many states, the infrastructure for composting food scraps is in its infancy, and it often needs to be built from scratch.

According to a 2014 study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and BioCycle magazine, only 7 percent of the nearly 5,000 composting facilities across the U.S. handle food scraps. Nearly three-quarters of the facilities handle leaf and yard debris.

In Maine, just seven of the 23 facilities licensed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection actively collect food scraps from residential and commercial customers for compost. These facilities mostly are located in southern and coastal Maine, leaving much of central, eastern and northern Maine with no place to send food scraps for compost. Not all these facilities may be capable of supporting a surge in diverted food.

For example, the compost facility in Farmington is a small community compost project run by a group of volunteers who are part of the Farmington Compost Collaborative.

Volunteer Tom Eastler of Farmington said the collaborative accepts food scraps donated from the University of Maine at Farmington, Mt. Blue Regional High School and W.G. Mallett School, as well as horse manure from local residents.

The collaborative composts about 1 ton of food scraps a week when school is in session, Eastler said.

While the prospect of diverting more food scraps is a promising development, Eastler said the Farmington compost project has a limited capacity for how much food it can handle as a small, volunteer outfit.

“We have a limit for how much food we can take, but we want to take more,” he said. “There’s only so much space, and we don’t have a big compost pad.”

Although processing costs for organics tends to be lower than for other solid waste, high hauling costs have hampered regional compost efforts. ecomaine, a waste-to-energy and recycling cooperative in southern Maine, tabled plans to start organics collection in its southern Maine service area because the tonnage it estimated it could collect could not offset transportation costs.

But sustainability advocates argue a food disposal ban with its promise of a guaranteed supply of food in need of diversion can spur investment in new compost or anaerobic digester facilities to process this material.

“It sends the message to investors that if they build the infrastructure, they will come,” Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said. “Investors want to know they’ll have the feedstock to run these facilities.”

Higher, better uses

Sending food to compost piles instead of landfills isn’t always the best alternative. The state’s solid waste hierarchy prioritizes minimizing food waste to begin with and donations to food banks and charities before composting or converting to biogas and other energy products.

For many producers, it’s already a habit to divert food from the waste bin. Hannaford, for instance, wastes no food at 40 of its 60 stores in Maine. Last year, its Maine stores donated 10.5 million pounds of food to feed hungry families. If the food is unfit for donation, the grocery chain, following the waste hierarchy, worked with farmers, composters and anaerobic digesters to keep it out of landfills.

“We are enormously committed to reducing food waste,” Eric Blom, the grocery chain’s spokesman, said in January. “Our sustainability team and individual stores work really hard every day to reduce or eliminate food waste.”

The food disposal ban could motivate producers to reduce the amount of waste they generate or even divert more food to food banks so they don’t have to comply with the law — most state compost laws apply to commercial facilities that generate 1 ton or more of food scraps. This isn’t a bad thing, Nora Goldstein, editor of BioCycle magazine, said.

After Vermont’s food disposal ban took effect for producers who generate one ton or more of food scraps per week in July 2015, the state’s largest food bank saw a 24-percent increase in donations over the previous year, Goldstein said.

A policy aimed at minimizing food scraps in the landfill should follow the solid waste hierarchy, which is supposed to guide solid waste policy in Maine: a reduction of waste at the source and food donations before composting. The bill under consideration in the Maine Legislature, however, neglects other rungs of the waste hierarchy, as well as the reality that composting may not be the ideal solution in more rural regions of the state.

“Any time we’re talking about ways to reduce food waste, it’s important to take a step back and look at the EPA hierarchy,” Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability at the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, said. “We should encourage producers to reduce waste at the source and encourage food donations before composting.”