Growing A Food Scrap Composting Infrastructure In Illinois

Stakeholder forums, a survey of Illinois composters and extensive research by the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition have resulted in a comprehensive report that will guide increased diversion and processing capacity.

Jennifer Nelson, Jennifer Jarland and Stephanie Katsaros
BioCycle March/April 2015, Vol. 56, No. 3, p. 52
Several composting facilities in Illinois have expanded to accept food scraps, such as St. Louis Composting’s operation in Belleville, Illinois.

Several composting facilities in Illinois have expanded to accept food scraps, such as St. Louis Composting’s operation in Belleville, Illinois.
Photos courtesy of St. Louis Composting

In January 2015, the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition (IFSC) presented a comprehensive report with critical findings on the challenges and solutions associated with food scrap composting in Illinois to outgoing Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly. The IFSC was founded in 2012 and has grown to over 100 members from multiple sectors, including local and state government, solid waste agencies, state associations, institutions, for profit and nonprofit businesses, community organizations, haulers and processors (see “State Coalition Advances Food Scraps Diversion,” September 2014). It provides vital leadership in all facets of food scrap collection and composting in Illinois. This timely report, titled Food Scrap Composting Challenges and Solutions in Illinois, substantiated two years of research and efforts on the part of the IFSC and other interested parties, while illustrating the environmental and economic benefits of composting.

The IFSC is also presenting its findings to House and Senate environmental committee leaders to educate them on the necessity of advancing composting legislation while giving a voice to compost manufacturers, food scrap generators, and small businesses that are expanding green jobs in Illinois. There is a large chorus of stakeholders, as seen in the number of grant requests received by David E. Smith, a Recycling Program Manager at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), that far outpace the availability of funds. The DCEO has awarded just under $4 million in grants through its Food Scrap Composting Revitalization and Advancement Program (F-SCRAP) over the past five years. “The IFSC is a proactive group that filled an ‘advocate for compost’ void that had existed in Illinois,” notes Smith.

As state leaders continue the debate strategies that will drive the Illinois economy forward, there is some agreement that using the existing asset base to develop local Illinois businesses is part of the solution. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s transition team report — Building a Better Illinois: Report of the Transition Co-chairs to the Governor-elect (January 2015) — advocates strongly for environmental and natural resource policies that enhance quality of life, conserve resources, and attract and develop new businesses. The report asserts that nurturing natural resources will be critical to sustaining Illinois’ economy and quality of life and advocates for minimizing waste and the use of landfills through the strengthening and expansion of successful recycling programs across the state. A robust food scrap composting industry would support some of the key tenets within Governor Rauner’s transition team report by building Illinois soils, protecting the state’s water resources (the report acknowledges that Illinois is the largest contributor of phosphorus and nitrogen into the Mississippi River Watershed from the use of chemical fertilizers), and supporting Illinois’ efforts to minimize waste and the use of landfills — while serving and growing local business opportunities that strengthen the Illinois economy.

The Food Scrap Composting Challenges and Solutions in Illinois project was funded by DCEO. It included researching policies and best practices from across the country using resources from BioCycle and the Institute for Self Reliance (see “State of Composting In The U.S.,” July 2014), the US Composting Council and more. The project then involved conducting stakeholder forums across Illinois, and creating an analysis and recommendations report.

This report complements the Executive Summary of Recommendations, which was submitted to the Illinois General Assembly Task Force on the Advancement of Materials Recycling in October 2014, and ultimately included in IFSC’s final report to the Governor and Illinois General Assembly. The Task Force was created to review the status of recycling and solid waste management planning in Illinois, with a goal to investigate and provide recommendations for expanding waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting in Illinois in a manner that protects the environment and public health and safety, and promotes economic development. “Illinois has a tremendous opportunity through development of a robust food scrap composting industry to create jobs while protecting our state’s natural resources,” notes Gary Cuneen, lead author of the report and Executive Director of Seven Generations Ahead, an Illinois nonprofit.

Evaluating Infrastructure And Capacity

In 2013, Illinois diverted just over 500,000 tons of yard trimmings and food scraps from landfills, according to the Illinois EPA. Food scraps are estimated to represent 13.4 percent of the amount of material landfilled, or approximately 1.8 million tons. The percentage of food scraps collected and composted in relation to total municipal solid waste landfilled was 0.5 percent in 2013.

Illinois does have significant infrastructure and capacity developed for yard trimmings composting. Several composting facilities have expanded to accept food scraps and are allowed to receive up to 10 percent of their existing permitted volume, or greater than 10 percent if approved by permit modification. Further development of this infrastructure, as well as the growth of anaerobic digestion infrastructure, has Illinois poised to greatly expand the volume of food scraps that can be diverted from landfills and be reclaimed as a valuable resource. (The IFSC intentionally decided to limit the scope of the report to food scrap composting, while fully recognizing and supporting the role of food scraps in the creation of renewable energy and other useful by-products through the utilization of anaerobic digestion as an alternative to composting.)

A survey of Illinois composting facilities was conducted by members of IFSC to provide information regarding their current organics and food scrap composting capacity or their intent to process food scraps. The survey represented a shortened version of a survey used by BioCycle in a state-by-state survey quantifying composting activity across the country. Only 7 of the 40 permitted commercial composting facilities in Illinois responded to the survey request (data in Table 1).

A more accurate assessment of the current level of food scrap composting taking place in Illinois and the potential to expand this infrastructure is vital. This data is not currently available through one agency and gathering the data has proven challenging. To gain a complete picture of potential infrastructure for food scraps, a way of tracking this information at the state level is needed.

Advancement of the food scrap composting industry in Illinois is stalled due to barriers related to the current costs, compared to landfilling, low demand from commercial food scrap generators (restaurants, food markets, institutions, etc.) and thus slow growth of collection route density, lack of policy to generate demand, outdated composting facility regulations, and the related lack of composting sites permitted to accept food scraps. In addition, there is no shortage of landfill capacity in the state (Table 2). These barriers have made food scrap composting an option only for those who understand the benefits of composting and are willing to set up internal systems and go the extra mile to make it happen.

Stakeholder Input, Summary Of Recommendations

Five stakeholder forums were held in Illinois between May and October 2014. At each forum, presentations were given on policies, programs, and best practices across the country that promote food scrap composting in different sectors. Current initiatives in private and public sectors were also highlighted. Following the presentations, attendees participated in breakout groups to discuss specific challenges and solutions related to advancing food scrap composting.

The recommendations generated through the forums were discussed, reviewed and organized through meetings of an IFSC Core Team, convened by Seven Generations Ahead with participation from the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County (SWALCO), the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC), US EPA Region 5, Kane County, School & Community Assistance for Recycling & Composting Education (SCARCE), Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and the Illinois Environmental Council. IFSC created an Executive Summary of Recommendations to support the efforts of the Illinois General Assembly Task Force by providing an overview of policies, strategies and recommendations generated through national research and Illinois stakeholder input forums. The Executive Summary was included within the Task Force’s final report to the Illinois General Assembly.

Challenges And Priority Solutions

In its report, Food Scrap Composting Challenges and Solutions in Illinois, the IFSC offers recommendations to address the major challenges that currently impede the development of an Illinois food scrap composting industry. The challenges addressed are listed below. (Visit illinoiscomposts.org for the full report and priority solutions addressing each of these challenges.) A summary of both the challenges and solutions are below:

Challenge #1
Need For Education

Policymakers and citizens have not received adequate education about the benefits of developing a food scrap composting industry in Illinois. Education is needed about the urgency and value of the material as a resource that is currently being landfilled.

Solutions: Conduct an economic analysis and forecast that demonstrates the opportunity for building a food scrap composting industry in Illinois and related jobs. Conduct broader education about the environmental benefits of food scrap composting, and shift the dialogue from food as “waste” to food as “resource” that can be harvested to create high value compost and deliver valuable economic and environmental benefits.

Challenge #2
Low Landfill Tipping Fees

Landfill tipping fees are low in Illinois, which creates a competitive and tough market for advancing food scrap composting and limits Illinois’ position as a leader in materials diversion from landfills.

Solutions: Restructure the cost of sending material to landfills through policy. Options would include some or all of the following: Enact state legislation to set higher fees for material entering landfills; Allow counties and municipalities to impose greater surcharges on landfill tipping fees than are currently allowed; Enact state legislation to impose a greater surcharge by the state on material going to landfills; and Enact Pay As You Throw (PAYT) legislation requiring municipalities to adopt PAYT fee structures for local community garbage collection.

Challenge #3
Lack Of Demand For Composting

There is a “catch 22” with lack of demand for food scrap diversion, hauling and composting, and a limited infrastruc-ture to meet the current demand. A robust infrastructure would develop economies of scale and lower costs that eventually will drive greater demand.

Solutions: Enact state policies that increase the demand for food scrap composting. Options include: Legislation banning food scraps and organic material from landfills (similar to Illinois’ yard waste ban); enacting an enforceable state mandate for material diversion from landfill by local counties that requires 50 percent diversion by 2020 and 75 percent diversion by 2030; Establishing incentives and tax breaks that incentivize food scrap generators to compost their food scraps.

Challenge #4
Lack Of Composting Infrastructure

Current composting infrastructure to haul and process food scraps is in its infancy, which increases costs related to transportation and inhibits the expansion of the industry.

Solutions: Revise Illinois composting site regulations based on the size and type of facilities and adjust site permitting to facilitate acceptance of food scraps by current yard trimmings facilities or new facilities that can handle food scraps; Map existing food scrap composting infrastructure, and develop a geographical strategy for increasing licensed facilities that compost food scraps to maximize demand; Prioritize state investments in the “gap” areas, and provide geographically strategic capital cost state grants/low-cost loans to support composting site and transfer station infrastructure development; Pending successful implementation of transfer station pilot program, expand allowance of existing yard trimmings transfer stations to accept food scraps. (SB 850/PA 98-0146 allows the Illinois EPA to issue an 18 month pilot permit to two waste transfer stations in Elgin and Stickney to allow acceptance of landscape materials and food scrap for composting.)

Among solutions to minimize contamination in source separated food scraps (example shown in photo) are grants for education and training in the form of workshops for generators.

Among solutions to minimize contamination in source separated food scraps (example shown in photo) are grants for education and training in the form of workshops for generators.

Challenge #5
Contamination Of Food Scraps

Contamination of collected food scrap material inhibits the creation of usable compost and thwarts develop-ment of the composting industry.

Solutions: Grants for education and training in the form of workshops and manuals for food scrap generators to facilitate successful, uncontaminated food scrap diversion; Link grants to policy priorities such as a tiered commercial organics ban; Pass legislation requiring labels on food sold in Illinois to have paper labels, or other feasible strategies; Create a system of checks and balances that catch and significantly reduce contamination at all levels.

Challenge #6
Lack Of End Markets  For Compost

Composting marketing, sales and education are very limited and are not effectively increasing the demand for Illinois-produced compost.

Solutions: Develop comprehensive end product compost marketing strategy that requires state and government agencies to provide policy to include a 30 percent (or determined percentage) compost requirement as part of any public sector project which contains restoration and/or landscaping element as part of any construction project; Educate local municipalities about the economic benefit in using compost as part of local projects; Encourage and/or provide grant funding for facilitating “buy local compost” education and market linking between big box retailers and facilities making Illinois- produced compost to increase local sales; Develop consumer-targeted composting media campaign; Work with USDA and State of Illinois to develop incentives on the federal and state level that encourage use of compost within farming operations (in lieu of synthetic chemical fertilizers that contaminate Illinois and regional watersheds) and help reduce the cost of composting applications.

The IFSC’s comprehensive examination of composting in Illinois sheds light on many challenges and solutions, but also needs and opportunities that are key to propelling this movement forward. These include a thorough assessment of the benefits of developing a composting industry related to economic development and job creation, watershed and natural resource protection, waste reduction, and cost avoidance by way of extending the landfill life; and evaluation of policies, regulations and program models from across the country that Illinois can borrow from and provide a road map for the state to develop a viable food scrap composting industry.

Jennifer Nelson is the Zero Waste Program Manager at Seven Generations Ahead (SGA). Jennifer Jarland is the Recycling Coordinator for Kane County in Illinois and a Director of the Illinois Recycling Association Board. Stephanie Katsaros is the Principal of Bright Beat. All three are founding members of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition. The final report was authored by SGA on behalf of the IFSC. School & Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education authored the Compost Quality Standards section of the report, and the IFSC Core Team provided overall content guidance and revision support.

Table 1. Existing and potential food scrap composting facilities in Illinois

Table 2. Remaining Illinois landfill capacity

 

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