Guest Post: Busting Barriers to U.S. Composting

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Photo: Earth911

Written by Barry Caldwell, Waste Management

Among the many waste-related environmental questions we get often – and one that’s lately been posed as a direct challenge to us – is: “Why are there barriers to composting in U.S. communities?”

The answer typically depends on where you live. Some communities already have made tremendous strides in developing large-scale organics processing capabilities and local infrastructure. Therefore, these towns can readily offer options for their residents and businesses to participate actively in local organics collections programs. Other communities have not made much progress or none at all. But many want to move toward this emerging diversion – and conversion – of waste into alternative uses.

It’s a complicated topic. But one thing is clear: when you look closely at the dynamics involved, there’s a pattern to what helps to catalyze large-scale composting collection in a community or state.

Composting Success Story

Let’s start with successes on the West Coast. Many communities in the West have developed local policies and ordinances that created financial incentives and public education programs that encourage customers to divert organics for composting. At the same time, these communities worked with local composters to ensure that sufficient-yard waste processing infrastructure was developed and in place to provide environmentally sound ways to compost locally.

Yard waste collection programs in the West are successful because of policies developed to create incentives for residents to participate in the program. Rate structures, consistent public education programs and a commitment to developing strong composting infrastructure support are essential ingredients. While some communities have banned yard waste from landfills, many do not impose bans once this system is in place. When regulations and sufficient infrastructure is in place, Waste Management supports yard-waste bans as an additional method to bolster strong organics management programs.

Read More: The Simple Science of Composting

Composting Challenges

Contrast that success with the results in states like Florida and Georgia. With all good intentions, these states implemented yard-waste bans in the mid-1990s, but didn’t have the needed infrastructure to make sure alternative processing was environmentally preferable. Unfortunately, over 15 years later, adequate infrastructure has yet to emerge. In fact, in Florida the record reflects that 3.4 million tons of yard waste were collected in 2010, but the majority of that organic material simply ended up in unlined Class III and construction and demolition (C&D) landfills where there is no requirement for capture of methane or other greenhouse gases.

Similarly in Georgia, as of last year a significant portion of the state’s yard trimmings was still being disposed of in unlined C&D landfills. Only 59 of the state’s 159 counties enacted ordinances to implement an organics diversion program. Keeping material out of landfills resulted in minimal growth of composting infrastructure. Clearly, this was not the intent of the yard-waste bans in those and other states.

Recently, Waste Management supported legislation modifying – not repealing – existing yard waste laws in Florida and Georgia. These modifications gave communities the option of disposing of organic material in Class I landfills only if they have gas capture systems in place that beneficially use methane to generate electricity and follow state agency standards. Many of our landfills have this capability. But at its core, this is a very narrow exemption to bans, and one that recognizes local control in shaping an organics program reflecting the desires of their citizens.

How to: Make Top-Notch Compost for Your Garden

Of course, we recognize that supporting bans where plans and infrastructure are in place while simultaneously advocating alterations to bans elsewhere can lead to confusion over where we stand as a company. This often gets voiced as frustration in communities, in the media or within the composting industry. Or worse, it’s expressed as an unfounded belief that we are insincere about our intentions when it comes to organics processing.

The Value of Composting

To be clear, we support and, indeed, already participate in environmentally-protective means to handle organics around the U.S. Through our own facilities and those of our partners, WM composted more than 2.5 million tons of organic material at more than 36 sites in 2011. We built two new organics facilities in Florida in 2011, among others, and we intend to expand our organics management footprint.

Our goal is to extract the most value from the organics – and other – waste streams we manage. We also want to offer our customers and communities we serve sustainability solutions where they want them. Sometimes, that means the material goes to a landfill. Other times it means skipping the landfill and composting the material as a soil amendment. And yet other times we believe it will mean converting the organic material into energy (fuel or electricity) or even specialty chemicals.

Advocating community choice – and encouraging local plans and well-regulated, protective infrastructure – is a sensible way to make progress toward overcoming barriers to large-scale local composting. We are eager to work with others who are open to our views.

Through collaboration, we believe a lot of progress can be made. And a lot of barriers will fall.

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