WasteExpo 2019: A guide to organics ban and recycling policies

WasteExpo 2019: A guide to organics ban and recycling policies

Speakers at WasteExpo previewed an upcoming toolkit for localities interested in implementing organic waste policies.

May 7, 2019

A major component to reducing food waste among all stakeholders is assuring the proper policies are in place to support their efforts.

Organic waste bans and mandatory organics recycling laws are gaining popularity around the country as ways to drive diversion among food waste generators, from large commercial operations down to individual households.

Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Center for EcoTechnology (CET), a nonprofit environmental consultant for businesses based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, have collaborated to create a toolkit for states and municipalities interested in implementing such policies.

Katie Sandson, a clinical fellow at Harvard FLPC, and Lorenzo Macaluso, the director of client services at CET, previewed the report during a WasteExpo session May 7, titled “Organic Waste Bans, Mandatory Organics Recycling Laws and Related Strategies for Food Waste Management: An Analysis of Existing policies, Challenges and Opportunities.”

The report, due to be released in a few weeks, was developed after a yearlong process of compiling information through interviews, a stakeholder convening and data from states and cities with organics recycling policies.

Here are highlights based on sections of the report.

Designing policies

Organics diversion laws and policies have been passed in 13 different states and local governments, each with unique features based on their locations. “There’s a lot of wrinkles and subtle differences to the bans,” Macaluso says.

Sandson and Macaluso found a few key questions decision-makers need to consider before beginning to write the legislation:

  • How would the policy fit into the locality’s broader waste management goals?
  • What does the existing infrastructure look like for organics collection and processing? Is it ample enough to begin implementing an organics waste ban, or are there plans to get to that point?
  • Is passage of the law feasible on the political agenda of the decision-makers in place?
  • Is funding available to assure the policy is realistic?
  • Who will the policy cover?
  • How will the policy be structured?

Existing policies across the country currently take on two forms: organic waste bans, which restrict the amount of food waste entities can dispose of, or mandatory organics recycling laws, which require diversion or subscription to an organics processing service. When deciding which structure a policy should take, it’s important to consider how it will be enforced.

A common feature of existing policies is distance exemptions that dictate which food waste generators will be mandated. Many say generators outside a 20-mile radius of a processing facility are exempt from the law. In some cases, these requirements are tiered, mandating that after a certain period of time, everyone will need to participate despite distance.

Macaluso says this can be an important component in assuring the law is passed. It also helps stimulate infrastructure development to assure more generators participate over time.

Another common aspect of these policies is a threshold based on how much waste generators produce. In Vermont, for example, generators are required to participate if they produce more than a certain number of tons. In New York City, it’s based on the square footage of the generator’s facility. “Understanding how much food waste you actually generate is a pretty important component to this,” Macaluso says.

Barriers, challenges and solutions

The main challenge policy-makers face is assuring the bill passes. Challenges still lie ahead once it passes, but proper due diligence while preparing the policy can minimize many of them.

Sandson gave several examples in which industries felt they’d be burdened by the law. In New York, for example, public education institutions, many of which are already strapped for money and time, pushed back on the law. The state decided to exempt them, along with public health institutions.

In Vermont, haulers also pushed back. The state required all haulers to begin offering organics collection services. Smaller haulers said they didn’t have the money to do so; meanwhile, larger companies felt resentful once they made the investment, as the state wound up pulling back its requirement.

“I think the key across all of these examples is the importance of stakeholder engagement throughout the process,” especially in the early stages of policy development, Sandson says.

Another major challenge to policy development is the availability of infrastructure. Macaluso says the generator, hauler and processor all need to work together to assure implementation of the law runs smoothly; if one component is missing, other areas will falter as a result.

Macaluso gave several examples in which governments can drive infrastructure development through policy. States and local governments can help fund some of the work to stimulate growth. Grant opportunities also exist. Anaerobic digestion, for example, can take advantage of clean energy funding.

Macaluso also says it’s important for policy-makers to consider the broader picture of food waste diversion, which includes not just recycling, but also prevention and recovery. This helps determine how much food is being wasted, allowing governments to decide the additional infrastructure a locality needs. “There is sort of a growing trend in policy development in recognition of the entire hierarchy,” Macaluso says. “This truly is part of the infrastructure picture.”

Beyond the ban

When writing policies, it’s important to consider other existing policies in a locality that may impact food waste bans. “These policies don’t happen in a vacuum,” Sandson says.

For example, some municipalities have reexamined their permitting processes to drive infrastructure development and make it simpler for processing facilities to open without fear of heavy regulations.

A closely related example is zoning. Some localities have reexamined these policies to make it easier for processing facilities to open near large waste generators. “If you can’t cite within 20 to 25 miles of the largest generators, those generators aren’t going to be covered,” Sandson says.

Another seemingly separate policy that relates to organic waste bans is pay-as-you-throw, which gives generators incentive to waste less and reduce, recycle and compost more.

Technical assistance and public awareness

Macaluso says four major components need to be in place to maximize the amount of food diverted: policy, infrastructure development, education and technical assistance, and enforcement.

“When all of these are working together, that’s when we’re seeing the fastest and most significant market development and growth,” Macaluso says.

Once a policy is in place, it’s important to assure all involved have the proper guidance to follow its requirements.

Often, local governments are responsible for providing technical assistance. Nonprofits like CET also exist to serve a consultant role, helping businesses understand what their options are and running through cost analyses to help them make informed decisions.

Compost sites also need assistance to learn about things like best practices and creating the best mix.

“I think this is a real important process of making strong, robust policies for diversion,” Macaluso says.