How often are you at a restaurant and notice plates being cleared from tables that are still loaded with perfectly good food? Or you see overstocked products at the market set to expire with no buyer in sight? All of this unwanted or forgotten food amounts to tons and tons of waste. While it can be called waste it is certainly not garbage, and should be handled accordingly.

Food scraps that are thrown into the trash are hauled to landfills, and on Martha’s Vineyard that means they first have to be processed through a local refuse district and taken off-Island. The carbon footprint to move our trash is a big one, and it’s not the right path for food scraps. According to Island Grown Initiative (IGI) garbage is the Island’s number one export. Annually 6,500 tons of food that has been grown, processed, and transported to or around the Island is only shipped off again as waste. It costs $622,180 per year to transport and dispose of organic waste in landfills off-Island and food waste represents 261 trucks on the Steamship Authority boats each way every year!

In the same place where food scraps are being thrown in the trash, farmers and gardeners are buying compost and animal feed produced from other communities. We think there’s something wrong with that, and thanks to IGI’s food rescue efforts less and less of that is happening here. IGI’s Island Food Rescue (IFR) is a pilot project that aims to provide solutions to utilize wasted food in ways that enrich the Island community and support the local food system.

Now local food waste is being processed and reused in the form of compost to help support future agricultural efforts that will enrich our soils, increase our bounty and feed our people. It’s a win for the local businesses that can effectively see their food repurposed, their trash bill decrease and their carbon footprint reduced, a win for the farmers, gardeners and backyard growers that can benefit from richer soil, and a win for the community that can feast upon the fruits of the land that is being nourished by the compost in the future.

We recently had the opportunity to catch some of the IFR project in action. We visited local restaurants including Linda Jeans and Waterside Market to see how they’ve assimilated the system into their restaurant operations, and the best part of it all is how simple and convenient it is. Basically a restaurant signs up with IGI and receives a large compost bin called a “toter” that they keep beside their dumpsters. They educate their staff on what is compostable and what isn’t, and IGI’s collection truck (complete with a hydraulic lift and power washer) comes as needed to pick up the waste and clean the toter. The food waste is then trucked to the Island Grown Initiative Farm ( formerly Thimble Farm) mixed with carbon and loaded into their in-vessel composter and hooray, food waste is saved from the trash and turned into a valuable resource for gardeners and farmers! Businesses then receive a monthly report that outlines how many pounds of food scraps they diverted from the waste system.

Recycling food waste at the IGI Farm

Once picked up by IGI, the food waste takes about a month of active composting, and then another six to eight months of curing. With IGI’s huge tumbler, food waste is fed into the machine and comes out as semi-finished compost in three to five days.

It’s all part of IGI’s commitment to build a regenerative food system on Martha’s Vineyard. You’ve likely heard that word a lot recently, and it’s an important one to understand. By adopting regenerative farming practices we can give back to the land in the same way it gives to us, by respecting it, recycling as much waste as possible, and adding composted material from other sources that can help contribute to its biodiversity and sustainability. Additionally, regenerative agriculture can remove carbon from the atmosphere (as plants and soil naturally pull carbon from the air) and ultimately work towards reversing climate change. It’s been estimated that by farming just a tenth of an acre through regenerative practices one can offset the carbon emissions of one American adult per year! By simply and strategically working the land around us not only can we give back to it, but we can can make some significant contributions towards a healthier environment.
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With the compost from local businesses going back into nearby land the health and vitality of the Island’s ecosystem is strengthened. It’s a simple concept but innovative in it’s approach– why wouldn’t we want to repurpose our local waste to help provide for a more plentiful future?

Already this year over 200 tons of food has been collected from Island businesses and local schools, including 6 tons alone just from the Ag Fair. All that waste yielded 145 yards of compost, of which 126 yards have been used for IGI programs like Island Grown Schools’ Community Garden, Orchard, and the regenerative fields at Island Grown Initiative in Oak Bluffs. Think about it. That’s over 200 tons of food that was not processed as garbage and was not lost to a landfill but put back into the land we love for the betterment of our soil, our produce, our animals and ourselves. It’s not rocket science but it is a smart way of doing business.

Food rescue efforts in action at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

So what can you do to be part of the solution?

Firstly be mindful of the food you purchase and try to use as much of it as possible. Our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs, so be realistic about what you can eat when you’re buying and preparing food.

Secondly compost! Build a compost bin in your yard or buy an enclosed composter. Use your compost for your garden, share with friends and family or donate it through the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District. For $2 a bin, anyone can bring their 5 gallon counter compost to a local participating transfer station, and IGI will handle the rest. Click here for a list of those foods that are compostable and those that are not.

Thirdly, if you’re a business owner that is interested in implementing IGI’s composting collection service sign up here! Enrolled businesses include 7a, Artcliff Diner, Atria, Beach Road, Cronig’s, Kitchen Porch, Little House Cafe, Stop n Shop, Harbor View Hotel and dozens more. Happy composting!