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Is the United States on the road to mandatory composting? Click to Enlarge

In early agricultural societies, composting was not only an economically efficient method of disposal, but more significantly it also enriched soils and helped prevent pollution.

Over time, as population densities increased and waste streams became more complex with the introduction of manufactured goods and non-organic materials, and as municipal waste collection grew more sophisticated, the many benefits of composting were lost to the expediency and economics of landfilling.

But, over the past few decades, that has been changing in a big way. As people became more aware, the sustainability benefits of composting yard and food-waste have become more recognized and embraced by more and more individuals as well as many European and North American cities.

The movement towards composting has also been driven by the increasing popularity of organically grown foods and the realization that harsh chemical fertilizers are a hazard to human and animal health, and a major cause of water pollution.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 150 communities in 18 states offer curbside collection of residential food-waste, which is a 50 percent increase since 2009. Nevertheless, of the approximately 35 million tons of food waste generated in the U.S. each year, 97 percent goes into landfills, while only 3 percent is recycled. Obviously, this is the last frontier of waste waiting to be recycled.

San Francisco was one of the early large cities to adopt composting organic waste with pilot programs dating back to the 1980’s. In 2009, the city passed pioneering regulations mandating all businesses and residences separate compostable waste so it can be collected for conversion into compost. Last year, San Francisco collected 1 million tons of compostable organic waste since the program began and claims a nearly 80 percent landfill diversion rate, but provides little data to back up the claim. Other North American cities and states have followed San Francisco’s lead and have instituted regulations and programs to promote composting. And the snowballing effect rolls on.

Whether or not composting is on the road towards widespread mandatory status in the U.S. was the question American Recycler News posed to industry experts.

The Peninsula Compost Group’s Wilmington Organic Recycling Center sits on 27 acres across from the Port of Wilmington, Delaware. The location was formerly a brownfield site that was remediated prior to construction.

Nelson Widell is a partner in the Peninsula Compost Group. His company was founded in 2006 to design, build, own, and operate large scale commercial composting facilities in the United States. Peninsula’s first facility, located in Wilmington, Delaware cost $20 million and was completed in 2009. As the largest food-waste composter on the east coast, the plant can process up to 160,000 tons of organic material per year. Food, plant and wood waste comes in from as far north as New York and as far south as Washington, D.C. It’s currently permitted to take in 650 tons of food and yard waste per day and annually produces approximately 90,000 tons of compost.

“I think composting is going to become mandatory. I’ve been in the composting business for over 30 years and what was a curiosity 30 years ago has for the most part has now become mainstream,” said Widell. “Europe took the lead in many composting issues but then the impetus followed here in the United Sates. Composting started in the more populated states, not by coincidence, but in those with more sophisticated, highly regulated standards for how solid waste is handled…predominantly on the east coast, west coast and in several Midwestern states. Composting took root on the west coast in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and in Honolulu.”

San Francisco has mandatory food-waste separation and recycling for everyone, including residential. The State of Connecticut has newly enacted regulations that mandate commercial establishments and businesses that generate over 140 tons of food waste per year must compost it if there is a composting facility available. Massachusetts has enacted regulations that will ban organics by commercial establishments from landfills starting in July, 2014.

Canadian cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have advanced composting programs. New York City already has a food-waste composting pilot program. In fact, in May, the city took bids for handling up to 200 tons per day of food-waste from schools and residences. In April, NYC’s Department of Sanitation unveiled its first building-wide composting program at an apartment complex.

“I also see the future of residential food waste being offered as an alternative and perhaps at some point in the future mandatory,” Widell speculated. “For example, Princeton Township in New Jersey now has a well established program for residential food-waste that has been quite successful and has proven to save money. A number of other communities in New Jersey are looking at the same type of program where they would collect food-waste separately and have it composted.”

“The other part is economics. For example, it costs $126 per ton to dump at a transfer station in Trenton, New Jersey. Peninsula charges about $50 per ton. Even with transportation from Jersey or New York down to our plant in Delaware it’s cheaper. So it’s not only environmentally far superior to putting it in a landfill, it’s also more economical for northeastern states. In Wilmington, the landfill for the state of Delaware costs $83 per ton and probably closer to $90 in New York City. So there’s both an environmental and economic benefit to composting.”

The price for Peninsula compost averages $20 per ton. Some is sold in bags but mostly in bulk to farmers, nurseries, contractors, garden centers and so forth. The Peninsula Group sees a bright future for composting. The company has plans in various stages of development for new facilities.

“Commodity recycling is mature, but the largest part of waste that’s still thrown away and not recycled is food and yard waste. This material is recyclable because that’s what Mother Nature wants and I do believe it’s becoming mandatory, at least here on the east coast, sometime in the future,” Widell concluded.

“What you see right now are about 3,000 plus yard waste composting facilities in the country. From the data I’ve seen, it seems to be pretty extensive. You have about two dozen states that ban the disposal of yard waste in landfills to one extent or another,” reported Chaz Miller, director of policy/advocacy for the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA). EIA, through its sub-associations, the National Solid Wastes Management Association and the Waste Equipment Technology Association, represent companies and individuals who manage wastes, manufacture and distribute waste equipment and provide environmental services.

“We have a lot of cities that require the separate collection of yard waste, or are quite happy if people either mulch grass while mowing, or have a backyard compost pile,” Miller continued. “For collection, they usually require the yard waste to be in a plastic bin, garbage can or a paper bag and many collect in bulk. Very few allow leaves to be collected in plastic bags because of the processing issue. That’s not mandatory composting, rather mandatory separate collection with the implication that the leaves collected separately will be composted. To the best of my knowledge they are. That leaves the question, do you have compost markets for that material, or does it wind up as alternative daily cover (ADC) for landfills? That’s a very important but separate question. I don’t know to what extent yard waste collected for composting is composted and used as a compost product, and to what extent it is composted and due to lack of markets ends up as ADC.

“The bigger issue now is food waste. And you have to divide food waste into categories by generators. Your industrial food processing companies have been composting extensively for years. In 1990, I visited the Budweiser brewery in Williamsburg, Virginia and the plant manager was thrilled that about a year earlier he signed a contract and no longer sent his spent hops and barley to a landfill, but sold them to a composter. I understand it was a company-wide policy. Interestingly, about five years ago there was a Super Bowl commercial which talked about their new practice: composting their spent grains. I thought they were finally taking credit for something they have been doing for quite some time. In other words, it long had a financial value, but they were now seeing a public relations value. That kind of composting has been common for quite a while because you have generators of large amounts of material and because the composition is well known, it’s a saleable commodity.”

“What is new on the food waste side is that we are starting to see larger retailers getting heavily involved in food recovery – the Wal Marts’ of the world and supermarket chains. They are setting up inventory control systems to cut down on food-waste. In the case of Wal Mart, they pull food daily from the shelves and donate to shelters or foods banks, instead of throwing it away. And they compost other food waste. You are also starting to see that from restaurants and other large generators.”

“I don’t know if mandatory composting will happen. Once you get into food waste you get into some unique infrastructure, odor and facility issues. Putting in a municipal food waste composting operation can be expensive, more so the first time around because of the learning curves. Clearly, there are financially successful companies out there or we would not have the amount of composting that we do have,” Miller concluded.

Finally, composting could be a major job creator according to a new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. The report claims that 1,400 new full-time jobs could be supported for every million tons of yard trimmings and food scraps converted into compost that is used locally.

Based on a survey of Maryland composters, the report found that on a per-ton basis, composting sustains twice as many jobs as landfilling and four times the number of jobs as burning garbage. The number of jobs supported by composting versus other disposal options was even more striking: 3 times more than landfills, and 17 times more than incinerators. Many of these jobs are skilled jobs such as equipment operators, with typical wages in the $16 to $20 per hour range.