By Mia Ambroiggio 

Forty percent of the food we produce in the U.S. is never eaten, and in Maine, food waste makes up 30% of the state’s waste stream. This is the single largest source of waste in the state and contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

On top of being an environmental concern, food waste is also an issue of equity. Maine ranks fifth in the nation for states with the most food insecurity. According to the Good Shepherd Food Bank,182,000 Mainers experienced hunger last year. Meanwhile, Mainers waste food every day. To combat this, Maine has adopted a Food Recovery Hierarchy, which prioritizes the way food scraps and waste can be reused, reduced, and recycled. The hierarchy emphasizes reducing food surplus, donating food to food banks, or using it as animal feed. In this hierarchy, disposing of food is the last resort. Today we are discussing food waste recycling: what it means, why it is important, and how individuals can participate in reducing food waste. 

Food waste recycling: anaerobic digestion and composting  

If food cannot be donated or used to feed hungry people or animals, scraps can be converted to fuel (anaerobic digestion) or turned into compost. These processes keep food waste from entering landfills and emitting methane, a harmful GHG that contributes to climate change. 

Anaerobic digestion breaks down organics – such as food waste – in the absence of oxygen. This process occurs in a digester, which is a capped system, meaning the gasses that are produced as a result of this process are captured and then combusted to create environmentally beneficial outputs. Anaerobic digesters can generate electricity to power, heat, and cool homes. The other outputs can be used as fertilizer and animal bedding. Anaerobic digestion is better for the planet than composting because the digestion process contains all GHG emissions that decomposition creates. Instead of these emissions entering the atmosphere, they are turned into useful products.  

Composting occurs on its own in nature. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi digest organic matter to aid in the decomposition process. Humans compost by replicating this process to allow organic waste to break down naturally. Putting food scraps in a compost bin causes millions of microorganisms to begin to break it down, until the scraps turn into compost, a rich brown material made from decomposed organic matter. Compost can be used to improve soil and plant health because it adds rich, organic matter.  

Anyone can compost food waste in a backyard bin or pile. However, backyard composting requires access to space, tools, and time that everyone may not have. Luckily, there are many food waste collection options available across the state that do not require a backyard bin!  

Local food waste collection options 

Many Maine communities have food waste collection programs. Private food waste haulers will collect food waste curbside for a monthly fee. Certain composting services – such as Garbage to Garden, which serves many Maine communities – may waive the monthly fee in exchange for a customer volunteering with the program. Curbside collection is convenient and it can recycle waste that isn’t compatible with a backyard bin or pile, such as meat, shells, and bones. Some municipalities also provide free food waste recycling services for residents. Here are just a few in southern Maine: 

Falmouth – Falmouth has a free food waste composting program with three drop-off locations: Transfer Station (41-123 Woods Rd.), Community Park (19 Winn Rd.), and Village Park (next to Casco Bay Ice Arena). 

Portland – Portland offers free composting for residents at five drop-off locations across the city: North Street Community Garden (195 North St.), Boyd Street Community Garden (2 Boyd St.), Clark Street Community Garden (corner of Clark St. and Salem St.), Libbytown Community Garden (175 Douglass St.), and Riverside Recycling Facility (910 Riverside St.), with plans to expand to new locations soon. 

South Portland – South Portland offers a free food waste recycling program in partnership with Garbage to Garden, ecomaine, and Agri-Cycle. Residents can pick up a free bin, fill it with food scraps, and drop it off at one of six designated drop-off sites scattered across the city. The food waste is then anaerobically digested and turned into sustainable electricity, farm fertilizer, and animal bedding. This program also provides the option to participate in reduced-rate, curbside collection with Garbage to Garden. Drop-off sites: Transfer Station (929 Highland Ave., 8 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday), City Hall (25 Cottage Rd.), Golf Course Maintenance Building (221 Westbrook St.), Planning and Development Office (496 Ocean St.), South Portland High School (along Highland Ave.), and Redbank Community Center (95 Macarthur Circle West) 

Anyone who lives in a town that currently doesn’t offer food waste recycling can get in touch with city officials, express interest, and advocate for citywide food recycling!