Banning organic waste

Zero waste initiatives are leading states and localities to pass organic waste bans, which present challenges and opportunities to the solid waste industry.

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Approximately 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. Most of this wasted food ends up in landfills, and food is the largest single component of municipal solid waste in landfills, according to the 2019 report, “Bans and Beyond: Designing and Implementing Organic Waste Bans and Mandatory Organics Recycling Laws.”

As more businesses, states and municipalities roll out sustainability initiatives, such as San Diego’s Zero Waste Plan that includes a 75 percent waste diversion goal by 2020, organic waste bans to reduce or divert food scrap from landfills are gaining momentum across the country.

Some states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont—and municipalities—Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Hennepin County, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; New York City; San Francisco; and Seattle—have passed organic waste bans or mandatory organics recycling laws. Other states, such as Maryland, and localities are looking to pass similar legislation.

“The issue is getting attention. I don’t think we’re done seeing these types of policies come into place,” says Lorenzo Macaluso, director of Green Business Services at Massachusetts-based environmental nonprofit Center for EcoTechnology (CET), which authored the Bans and Beyond report in collaboration with the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

The legislative landscape

Connecticut was the first state to pass a commercial organic waste law in 2011, followed by California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont in 2014 and New York in 2019.

Connecticut requires food waste generators, including supermarkets and food manufacturers, to divert their food waste to an organics processing facility. In January, the law extended to other businesses, which can comply by donating surplus food, using food scraps for animal feed, processing food scraps on-site or sending food scraps to a composting or anaerobic digestion (AD) facility.

California’s mandatory commercial recycling law requires certain businesses to subscribe to organic waste recycling services. Massachusetts established its disposal ban through regulation. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) added “commercial organic material” to a list of several materials already barred from landfills.

“Some of the bans are legislatively driven. Those often result more in a law [being passed]. Some are regulatory in nature,” Macaluso says. “New York went through a more legislative process, where it went through the governor’s office.”

Rhode Island’s law requires certain businesses and institutions to divert organic waste to authorized composting or AD facilities, or a “facility that uses any other authorized recycling method, including on-site treatment and animal feed.”

While Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law passed in 2012, the phased-in food scrap disposal ban began in 2014. By July, all individuals, businesses, corporations and public entities, in addition to commercial food waste generators, will be banned from disposing of food scraps. Prior to 2020, businesses and households were exempt from the law if they weren’t located within 20 miles of a processing facility.

“We have over 100 transfer stations now across the state that offer food scrap collection,” says Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, which is part of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). “That was required because if you’re going to have a ban on something, you need to make it convenient for people.”

New York’s food scrap recycling requirement passed in 2019 as part of the state’s 2020 budget process. The law, which will take effect in 2022, requires food scrap generators that produce more than two tons per week to donate food scraps. It also requires certain food scrap generators to divert food scraps to organic processing facilities.

“Comparing where we are today to several years ago, there’s very significant advancement in the level of activity and awareness about food waste in a handful of states in the Northeast and California. There are also a rising number of jurisdictions either on a county or city level that have similar policies in place,” Macaluso says.

Organic recycling ordinances have popped up in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which adopted new commercial organic recycling and new residential collection requirements in 2018. In Portland, Oregon, a city council ordinance will require businesses to separate and divert food waste in 2020.

“I think across the board where these bans are happening, there’s significantly increased economic activity,” Macaluso says.

"I think across the board where these bans are happening, there’s significantly increased economic activity.” –Lorenzo Macaluso, director of Green Business Services at the Center for EcoTechnology.

According to a MassDEP survey targeting organic waste haulers, processors and composters, all three sectors reported “significant growth” over the last decade. The ban supported more than 500 additional jobs across the sectors from 2010 to 2016 and nearly $175 million in industry activity. Processors planned the highest average capital investments for 2017, followed by haulers, and the analysis projects that growth to continue in Massachusetts.

For haulers, organic waste bans by nature create increased demand for food waste collection services. According to a hauler survey conducted by CET, commercial haulers in Massachusetts reported their customer base grew from 1,350 in 2014 to 2,300 in 2018.

Driven by the market

In 2017, Vermont composting facilities collected more food scraps than ever before, a 9 percent increase from 2016, according to a 2019 Universal Recycling status report.

In 2018, the legislature also made reasonable changes to the law to “address some concerns of different stakeholders,” Kelly says. The modifications included removing the hauler requirement to collect leaf and yard debris and postponing the food scrap hauling requirement to 2020.

“There was a lot of debate around the food scrap hauling requirement,” says Kelly, whose team at DEC oversees implementing the ban. “We surveyed haulers and our municipalities and districts. We came back with results that showed haulers overwhelmingly don’t want to offer food scrap collection.”

Another modification requires haulers to only provide pickup services to businesses and apartment buildings, unless another hauler can provide the service, Kelly says. The state now has more than 20 haulers offering food scrap pickup services.

“If somebody is wanting to get into this market, then that could exempt the other haulers, but I will say they don’t really love the idea of another hauler providing a service, so they start to compete with each other,” he says.

Before the ban went into effect, three of the state’s largest haulers—Casella Waste Systems, Gauthier Trucking and Myers Container Service—offered waste, recycling and food scrap collection services.

Since the ban, new hauling companies, especially those focused on providing residential food scrap pickup services, have sprouted up. Starting in the summer of 2020, Got Trash and Ruggiero Trash Removal will debut food scrap collection services to residents across several Vermont counties. No Waste Compost, a rising hauler in the commercial and residential space, also reports doubling its customer base from 2018 to 2019, Kelly says.

Vermont has also seen an increase in composting and AD facilities as well as in “traditional solid waste haulers owning and operating these facilities,” he says. Casella, Rutland, Vermont, is opening an organics recovery facility. Vanguard Renewables, Wellesley, Massachusetts, is also developing an anaerobic digestion facility in Salisbury and the construction of the Wyman Frasier Compost Facility is also underway in the state. These facilities didn’t exist before the ban, Kelly notes.

“In Vermont’s experience with the food waste ban, it leads to businesses springing up to meet the demand,” Kelly says. He adds food rescue has increased 50 percent in Vermont since the ban went into effect.

When Vermont passed its Universal Recycling Law, stakeholders worked with the state to develop a set of standardized recycling symbols residents and businesses could recognize, Kelly says, including an apple core on a green background to encourage composting and a whole apple on a purple background to encourage food donation and rescue. Since these symbols were released, haulers and solid waste companies have started displaying them on their trucks and collection bins.

“We’re hopeful that the symbol is used universally for food scrap recycling,” Kelly says. “I hope 20 years from now, you see that apple core everywhere.”

The author is a digital editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at

March 2020
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