Update to BioCycle’s online directory, FindAComposter.com, finds 93.5 percent increase in facilities that can accept food scraps in the United States.
Aaron Krossovitch, Stephanie Katsaros and Nora Goldstein
BioCycle January 2014, Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 24
In April 2007, BioCycle launched FindAComposter.com, a publicly searchable database of composting facilities in the United States and Canada. The intent — then and now — was to make it easy to find composting facilities to divert organic waste streams as well as buy compost. This online directory is a free service to all users, as well as to those composting operations that list their facilities. After a facility manager completes the data entry form, the information is verified by BioCycle editors before the listing becomes active.
BioCycle and The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) collaborated on creating this online directory in large part due to a perception that the infrastructure to compost food scraps was limited in the U.S. Over the past seven years, BioCycle’s FindAComposter.com (FAC) has become populated with sites that are permitted to receive pre and postconsumer food scraps, or that will consider accepting this material. Users of the database are organic waste generators and/or their hauling contractors seeking composting sites to manage their materials.
In Spring 2013, a major update began on the listings in the FAC directory, funded by Dart’s Solo Division, a BPI member. Bright Beat, a sustainability consulting firm in Chicago, was engaged to update the existing listings as well as to specifically identify food scraps composting projects that were not in FAC and add them to the database. Updating FindAComposter.com was performed in phases. Phase I, completed in August 2013, updated the listings currently in the online database — both those indicating they receive or are permitted to receive food scraps as well as those taking other materials such as yard trimmings, biosolids and manure. Phase II, completed in December 2013, was to conduct a state-by-state survey to identify food scraps composting projects not currently in FindAComposter.com. The results of Phases I and II with regard to food scraps composting facilities are as follows:
• 264 composters in the FAC online directory are taking food scraps.
• Additional research found 295 new sites that are permitted to take food scraps.
Phase III, just getting underway, involves contacting all of the new food scraps composting operations identified in Phase II, and adding verified projects (i.e., those that are receiving and composting food scraps in accordance with their permit or permit exemption) to the FAC directory. This article summarizes the findings of Phases I and II of BioCycle and BPI’s outreach conducted by Bright Beat.
Phase One Findings
In Phase I, Bright Beat surveyed the listings that had been last updated before 2012 or had never been updated or claimed since a new database platform was installed in the summer of 2010. These facilities either claimed their listing (created an account) or updated the information, or Bright Beat assisted them with the process. Missing details often were filled out through secondary information sources (e.g., websites, BioCycle articles or local newspaper write-ups). Bright Beat’s efforts resulted in about 420 facilities with updated information. Combined with listings created in 2012 and later, the FindAComposter.com online directory contains more than 500 verified composting facilities in the U.S., and 191 verified Canadian composting facilities.
As part of the Phase I outreach, Bright Beat asked facilities if they accept, or are willing to accept, compostable products certified by BPI. Whether or not composting facilities are permitted to accept food residuals is a matter largely determined by state and local regulatory agencies. Acceptance of various compostable or biodegradable packaging or food serviceware is an operational decision made by the individual facilities. Bright Beat spoke to operators from 344 composting facilities in the U.S. about their experiences and considerations regarding acceptance of BPI-approved products.
Many facilities make a clear distinction between “compostable” and “biodegradable” in deciding what materials to accept. For example, the State College Borough Yard Waste Facility in State College, Pennsylvania will not accept any plastic bags or other products that say “Degradable” or any version of the word, including “Biodegradable” and “Oxodegradable,” unless it also is labeled “Compostable.” Composters mentioned issues with those degradable plastics not breaking down completely, resulting in bits of plastic in their compost.
Good results were reported from facilities accepting BPI-certified compostable products. Seven out of ten composters that processed compostable foodservice items along with their postconsumer food scraps, allowed BPI-approved items. A composter in Indiana noted that the compostable products “degrade fine if you get enough heat and air to them.” But others indicate a preference to avoid receiving them because either they don’t break down well, or not quickly enough, in their particular composting process. “Without samples or details on the composition of those materials, we cannot determine the root cause of the problem,” said one operator that did not accept the products. The challenge becomes more complex when different compostable product categories respond to different processing times or methods, i.e. cups vs. utensils. (This challenge may be alleviated as BPI has just implemented a new, web-based product catalog with item by item listings of certified products; see www.bpiworld.org.)
A common factor identified in facilities’ decisions to accept or reject BPI-certified products was the fear of “opening the floodgates” of contamination, as it may (or is perceived that it will) open the door to nondegradable plastics and contaminants in the incoming materials. This challenge also points to the broader issue of the education of waste generators, the need for continuous training, and a commitment by their management and staff to properly source separate.
The following is a sampling from some conversations with facility managers about accepting BPI-certified products:
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency accepts yard trimmings and preconsumer vegetative food scraps, and is planning a pilot with BPI-approved compostable serviceware.
San Diego, California: The Miramar Greenery, owned and operated by the City of San Diego, is doing a pilot with compostable plastic bags. It had tried compostable/BPI-approved serviceware in the past but the items did not break down in the 10-week windrow process. (See “Compostables Trial At Municipal Yard Trimmings Operation,” August 2010).
Napa, California: Napa Recycling & Composting Facility is upgrading its permit to accept postconsumer food, including packaging and BPI-certified products. This is currently operating as a pilot project.
Phase Two Findings
The objective of Phase II was to identify through research as many composting facilities as possible that could be added to the FAC database. The focus was on facilities that are allowed to accept food residuals, either by permit or an exemption from the permitting requirements. For this phase, information and data on existing permitted facilities was collected primarily from state composting officials.
To expand the number of listings in FAC, Bright Beat and BioCycle contacted the organics recycling officials in every state, as well as in the U.S. EPA regions. Each was provided a table of current FAC listings reporting food as a feedstock (a total of 264 existing listings following Phase I) and specifically asked to respond with facilities that are allowed to accept food scraps. We also requested that any changes be made to the existing food scraps composting listings provided to them to review. The survey responses were compared state by state and line by line to the existing food scraps composter listings; new facilities were added to the working spreadsheet. Most states that responded returned the survey sent, while others provided their own spreadsheets. In the end, 43 states responded, leaving only seven states and the District of Columbia not providing any information.
Phase II resulted in the following updates: 295 new food scraps composting facilities were identified based on input from state permitting officials; a total of 10 were deleted (no longer operating, duplicate, etc.) and food was removed as a feedstock from 38. There is a net gain — based on the Phase II findings — of 247 composting facilities that are permitted to process food scraps in the U.S. This represents a combined increase of 93.5 percent (264 in Phase I, plus the 247 in Phase II). As noted, Phase III of the BioCycle/BPI update being conducted by Bright Beat includes verifying the newly identified projects.
By surveying the state regulators to research food scraps composting, we got a first-hand glimpse of the broad variance in regulation from state to state and region to region. In many states, composting is regulated by different agencies, or so loosely regulated that collection of accurate and complete information on composting activity is hindered. In South Carolina, for example, composting does not fall under the authority of only one single program, making data collection challenging. In Oklahoma, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry both issue composting permits for different purposes. In Michigan, source separated food waste is not a regulated solid waste, nor is a license or permit required for facilities managing food waste. Thus there isn’t a simple way to track food waste composting, nor the amounts processed. And in Rhode Island, the composting permits deal with total volume and do not break down between permitted feedstock categories, according to a state official.
But in spite of the obvious challenges much progress is being made in facility tracking and there is a lot of enthusiasm on the front lines. For example, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality intends to conduct a survey of composting facilities in the state to learn more. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality notes that composting is on the rise in the state due in part to the agency’s increased efforts to promote and encourage composting of all types and scales. This includes revising the state solid waste management regulations to streamline the permitting process for composting businesses and operations.
Aaron Krossovitch is a Research Associate at Bright Beat, and a life-long home composter with a passion for sustainability. Stephanie Katsaros, Founder of Bright Beat, specializes in large-scale sustainability solutions for brands, events, venues and municipalities. Her background in music, media and events shapes her distinct approach and perspective as a project manager and freelance journalist (www.brightbeat.com).