Choking on Food Waste

Choking on Food Waste

Factors impacting the expansion of organics collection programs on the West Coast.

With pioneering food scraps collection programs in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, the West Coast has led the way in capturing food waste from businesses and residents for productive uses. Well over 100,000 tons per year of commercial food scraps from these and other West Coast cities are being collected from thousands of businesses and processed into compost. Despite this success, most food scraps — around 95 percent nationally — continue to be disposed.

A critical limiting factor in the establishment of food scraps recovery programs is the amount and location of permitted processing capacity. Specific hurdles include siting, permitting or permit revisions, and incentives and costs associated with adding material types (especially food scraps) to an existing yard trimmings processing facility.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) has identified food scraps as the largest material type, by weight, in California's disposed waste. In 2003, nearly six million tons of food scraps were disposed in California, according to CIWMB estimates.

Nationally, as of 2000, there were nearly 4,000 compost facilities nationwide that processed yard trimmings. Yet, composting facilities that can process food scraps are few and far between.

In U.S. EPA Region 9 (which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific islands and more than 140 tribal nations), there are not more than 15 large-scale composting facilities that have permits to accept a broad range of food scraps. California has 12 of these facilities. Meanwhile, there are approximately 120 permitted composting facilities in the state that accept yard trimmings. Hence, in California, only about 10 percent of the permitted composting facilities can accept commercial and residential food waste. Across Region 9, this statistic is likely to be very close to 10 percent as well, and perhaps lower in other parts of the country.

Siting Issues

The siting and permitting of large-scale facilities that can process significant volumes of food waste face considerable hurdles. First off, composting facilities of all stripes often meet strong community opposition, and large-scale composting facilities are that much harder to site. Large composting facilities that handle vegetative and animal-based food scraps are perhaps the hardest to site, with the exception of biosolids processing operations.

Opposition is based on a combination of factors. Depending upon local circumstances, these factors can include:

  • environmental impacts, especially odor, noise, dust and truck traffic, but also water usage;

  • land-use compatibility concerns, especially given the classification of compost facilities as solid waste facilities;

  • encroaching suburbanization;

  • greenbelt protection;

  • concerns that the proposed composting operations are a ruse for the dumping of trash, whether legal or illegal.

Permitting Issues

Within Region 9, state governments and their regional environmental agencies serve as the primary regulatory authority over composting facilities that accept municipal feedstocks. The state of California distinguishes “food material” from “green material.” In simple terms, food material includes residential or commercial food scraps of vegetative or animal origin that are separated from the municipal solid waste stream. Green material includes yard trimmings and various other materials. A facility with only a permit to accept and process green material cannot process food material, or what is sometimes termed “source-separated organics.” This expansion in the types of materials to be processed triggers the need to obtain numerous permits from local and state authorities, and possibly extensive public review.

Economic Hurdles

The time, effort and cost of obtaining a permit revision can be substantial for a facility operator, often taking upwards of a year at a six-figure cost in California. This can be a significant barrier, given the perceived minimal marginal return or competitive advantage of organics composting over more conventional yard trimmings processing operations.

Moreover, existing facilities may be required to make prohibitively costly facility upgrades in order to obtain their new permit revisions. Examples of facility upgrades include increasing the impermeability of the site surface, enhancing leachate collection systems, enclosing operations, and making or improving on- or off-site roads.

Future Prospects

The ability to expand widely the number of municipal food scraps collection programs will turn on the ability to permit the required new capacity reasonably close to the source of the material. Possible solutions:

Enclose composting operations. By enclosing composting operations, and using forced aeration systems, facilities can reduce air emissions, leachate and use of potentially scarce water resources. The use of “breathable” covers are generally reported by users to be lower in cost and easier to operate than more mechanized in-vessel composting technologies.

Consider anaerobic digestion. Another approach that might obviate some siting and permitting challenges would be to add very clean commercial food scraps to anaerobic digestors at publicly-owned treatment works (waste water treatment facilities), for the generation and capture of biogas.

Raise disposal fees. It is challenging for organics composting programs to flourish in states where tipping fees are low. The cost equation can be changed, however, through public policy. One policy measure would be to establish or increase the surcharge on disposal, and to use the revenues to support waste reduction, composting and recycling efforts. These surcharges can be placed at both the state and local level.

Streamline the permit process for composting facilities. California, in particular, could reduce regulatory complexity and uncertainty in obtaining permits to operate organics composting facilities.

Update and use EPA's WARM model. EPA's WARM model presents a framework for quantifying the role that composting can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has some notable deficiencies, however, and is in need of updating. Local and state governments could use an updated model to underscore the importance of composting.

Emphasize resource conservation. The framework for waste reduction, recycling and composting over the past 30 years has been based on diverting materials from landfills and incinerators. Opinion leaders need to put greater emphasis on the role recycled organic material plays in the conservation of soil and water.

Incorporate land use. Promote on-farm composting by allowing greater regulatory flexibility.

Understand local land use and public process issues. Local governments and private businesses that seek to add food scraps at existing composting facilities need to engage the community more about the benefits of doing so.

Run operations efficiently. Well-run composting operations that handle food scraps should not only be held up as models for the industry, but should become the industry norm.

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Steven Sherman is senior manager at Cascadia Consulting Group's California office. He has worked for 20 years with the public and private sectors to plan, implement, and expand yard trimmings and food scraps recovery programs. He can be reached at (510) 773-2776 or