Navigating composting regulations


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Individual states determine the regulatory process for composting operations and oversee the permitting, siting, design and operations requirements. Federal regulations apply for facilities handling biosolids, and in some states, animal manures. In cases where the state has not established requirements specifically for composting source separated organics or other mixed feedstocks, the state may defer back to the federal biosolids regulations. Typically, the pollutant limits and pathogen and vector attraction reduction processes are utilized.

Even with regulations in place at the state level, local planning and zoning requirements are important for composting facilities as well. Unfortunately, these requirements are often tricky or cumbersome to navigate due to outdated laws, lack of familiarity with composting processes and conflicting community priorities. Facilities often must meet local requirements before receiving a permit from the state, so the local planning office is the first place to start when initiating the permit process for a composting facility.

Composting is often not recognized as a traditional land use designation and may be classified as an industrial, rather than an agricultural, activity. This designation can burden composters with excessive regulations and on farms, discourage basic agricultural activities such as farmers processing their own manure or slash. Local land use rules may also require compliance with criteria that is already covered by state rules. This creates both a financial and regulatory burden to the processor, and impedes the development of processing infrastructure.

Composting regulations typically address concerns over litter, leachate, odor, vectors, dust, noise, security against illegal dumping, protection of surface and groundwater, neighborhood compatibility and pathogen and metal levels in the finished product. Requirements for yard waste composting tend to be much more lenient than those for food waste because of the reduced risk of leachate, odors, vectors and pathogens, generally leading to decreased feelings of “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBYism). Some state regulations facilitate composting of source separated organics (SSO), based on type (e.g., vegetative only with no meat, preconsumer) and quantity (e.g., <500 cy at any one time). In these cases, less onerous and less costly permits may be available. Typically, composting facilities seeking to process larger quantities and/or a wide range of types of SSO (e.g., vegetative and meat/dairy as well as postconsumer, such as plate scrapings) will need to apply for a more complex and costly permit, e.g., a full-blown solid waste facility permit.

Case Study: Revising Composting Regulations in Florida
The State of Florida revised its composting regulations in 2006 in order to increase the diversion of organic materials. The consultant’s final report provides a good overview of how regulations can hinder the processing and composting of organics other than yard waste, and a review of regulations in other states that support the recycling of source separated organics.

The report recommendations offer suggestions for states with outdated and overly broad requirements:

Establish a more complete system of tiered facility classifications that reduces the regulatory burden for a much wider array of facilities; Modify regulatory definitions for feedstocks and procedures in support of the tiered facility classification; Simplify the types of compost defined by regulation and update the pollutant standards; Establish a multi-stakeholder process for draft rule making and public comment; and Implement an outreach and development program targeted at increasing recovery and beneficial use of organic materials.

The report specifically calls out three recommendations:

  • Make yard trimmings facilities with less than 50,000 cy/year exempt from regulations, provided that they conform to general environmental protection requirements;
  • Enable registered yard trimmings facilities to accept vegetative food residuals provided that they handle less than 5,000 cy/acre; keep C:N ratio greater than or equal to 35:1; and materials do not remain on site for more than 18 months;
  • With regard to compost classification and use, establish fewer types of compost than the current regulations and create consistent heavy metals standards for all types of compost.

Read the report here.

Case Study: Moving from Yard Trimmings to Source Separated Organics
The State of Minnesota ran a pilot program in 2007 to test the feasibility of composting source separated organics (SSO) at yard waste facilities. Under current Minnesota law, facilities accepting compostable materials other than yard waste are governed as solid waste facilities and subject to solid waste management taxes. The pilot program hopes to demonstrate that the composting of SSO at yard trimmings sites can be done with minimal environmental impact and only minimal changes to site design and operation, and, if new regulations were adopted to reflect this, the economics of organics recycling would greatly improve. Read more about the project in “Commingled Organics at Yard Trimmings Composting Site,” BioCycle, September 2007.

Questions to ask/answer
Does your state ban any organic materials from the landfill (yard trimmings, grass, paper, leaves, manure, biosolids, etc.)?

  • See a list of states with bans on landfill disposal of leaves, brush and/or grass
  • Waste Management and others in the trash industry have sought to overturn these bans. Find more on how to fight to keep your landfill ban – LINK HERE yard waste section.
  • The State of Massachusetts’ 2000 solid waste management plan includes language that would ban disposal of commercial organics (e.g., grocery store and restaurant food waste) once an adequate processing infrastructure has been established.

Are any of these materials covered under local or state recycling goals?

  • Iowa legislation directs local governments to require residents to separate yard trimmings (see Des Moines note above).
  • Maine and West Virginia have state recycling goals that mandate the composting of yard trimmings.
  • The City of Seattle will roll out food waste collection service to all single family households in 2009. While service would be mandatory, participation would remain optional as food waste has not been banned from garbage.

Is state funding available for recovering organic materials?

  • The State of Washington provides funds, as available, to local governments submitting a proposal to compost food scraps and yard trimmings (Wash. Rev. Code, 1990)
  • Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are examples of states that provide grant funds to public and private sector composting operations to purchase equipment. Historically, these grant funds were used for yard trimmings composting operations. More recently, facilities have received grants to purchase equipment for food waste composting programs.

Are local government incentives available for recovery of organic materials?

  • In Oregon, the Portland Metro regional government and the City of Portland subsidize purchase of organics collection carts as part of their food waste diversion program. Haulers offering organics collection service can offer wheeled carts through this program.

What composting facilities currently exist in your area? What materials can they accept and in what quantity?

  • Use to search for composting operations in your area.
  • Talk to your wastewater treatment facility to find out what’s happening to sewage sludge.

Contact your local farmers’ market or farm association to identify local farms processing source separated organics. Include community gardens and CSAs (community-supported agriculture) in your search. Read more on forging partnerships.

Tips for revising composting regulations

Zoning and land use rules should be updated to reflect changing priorities within the community or region, with specific emphasis on the economic and environmental importance of organic resource management, utilizing soil amendments and mulches to minimize run-off, sedimentation and water pollution, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Planners and policy/lawmakers should be trained to understand composting and professional organic resource management before they develop zoning and land use rules regulating it, and the same training should occur before existing zoning and local land use rules are revised. The “yuck” factor and NIMBYism associated with the public perception of composting facilities is often wrongly adopted by local officials and planners unfamiliar with professionally managed facilities.

Farms should have the right to process residuals generated onsite, receive feedstocks from off site in reasonable volume to bulk or add value to products, and sell finished products without limitation (governed by the performance standards set forth in state-level regulations). Farms are a natural processing outlet for source separated organics, and in some states, legislation treats composting as an agricultural extension. Further, the return of organic materials to rural and urban soils offers substantial community benefits.

Planners and policy/lawmakers should review existing land use rules to ensure that no provisions duplicate rules from state agencies already regulating composting. As stated before, this creates an unnecessary financial and regulatory burden to the processor, and also impedes the development of processing infrastructure.

Composting should be regulated based on performance standards, rather than material composition, quantity or processing methods. For example, pathogen reduction should be required, as well as methods for the avoidance of odors, water and air pollution, vectors, leachate, excessive noise and other public health, safety and nuisance concerns. However, the type and volume of materials an operator can or cannot process, and via what technology, should be at the discretion of the operator so long as these decisions fall within reason and reach compliance with environmental performance goals. This stimulates innovation and adaptability, both within the industry and within regions of the state, which are desirable conditions in most market sectors. Build a comfort level with local and state regulators about a composting operation’s capability to process a variety of source separated organics. Consider a trial period with a new feedstock, where monitoring and measuring (e.g., air emissions, water runoff, meeting PFRP (process to further reduce pathogens)) are conducted to document the ability of a composting operation’s processing method to handle the new feedstock. Collect data and make that available to regulators and permitting authorities.

Finally, be sure to hold open houses for facility neighbors, regulators, permitting authorities, elected officials and others to demonstrate the solid performance of the composting operation, and the quality of the finished products. Operate above the radar: One composting facility in western Pennsylvania holds an annual barbeque at its composting site – right between two actively composting windrows.