November 7, 2023 | Collection, Composting, Facilities, Food Waste, Policies + Regulations

Best Opportunities To Upgrade Yard Trimmings Composting Facilities To Scale Food Waste Diversion

In an unprecedented study, the Composting Consortium, Coker Composting & Consulting, and BioCycle analyzed current permitting requirements and costs to retrofit composting facilities to accept food waste across all 50 states.

Top: Photo by Doug Pinkerton

Craig Coker, Nora Goldstein and Paula Luu

BioCycle last conducted its State of Organics Recycling In The U.S. survey, which collects data from states on organics recycling infrastructure and policies, in 2017. At the time, of the approximately 4,700 composting facilities reported in the U.S., 57% or just shy of 2,700 were composting only yard trimmings. Despite the data being six years old, the reality is that most composting operations in the U.S. accept yard trimmings only, processing leaves, grass clippings, and woody debris. While not all those sites are suitable for an upgrade to accept food waste (e.g. they operate on a seasonal basis), many might be candidates.

The Composting Consortium, managed by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, is a multi-year collaboration across the entire compostable packaging value chain to pilot industry-wide solutions and build an investment roadmap to scale infrastructure that enables the recovery of food waste and food-contact compostable packaging. To better understand the viability of retrofitting existing composting infrastructure, the Consortium worked with Coker Composting & Consulting and BioCycle Connect, LLC to conduct an evaluation of state composting regulations that help or hinder the use of existing yard trimmings composting infrastructure to process food waste and food-contact compostable packaging. The analysis is being leveraged to produce a U.S. Investment Roadmap that the Consortium is set to release in Spring 2024.

A commonly held observation is that the U.S. lacks adequate recovery infrastructure for food waste and food-contact compostable packaging and products. Part I of this series, “Full-Scale Food Waste Composting Infrastructure in the U.S.,” identified around 200 facilities across the country that process up to 4% of the food waste generated by Americans each year. Apart from greenfield projects to stand up new composting facilities, retrofitting existing yard trimmings-only facilities is one path forward to close the infrastructure gap for food waste and food-contact compostable packaging in the U.S.

For municipally owned and operated yard trimmings facilities, adding food waste feedstocks may aid in compliance with state disposal bans, mandates, or regulations, or be a benefit to Climate Action Plans. Privately-owned and operated yard trimmings facilities typically receive higher tipping fees if they process food waste. Municipally owned and privately operated facilities could tap into both the municipal and commercial sector benefits that are available by adding food waste feedstocks.

Role of Permitting Regulations To Expand Infrastructure

State permitting requirements play a crucial role in the transition of yard trimmings-only composting facilities to accept food waste as a feedstock. Permitting ensures that composting facilities adhere to stringent guidelines, guaranteeing the safe processing of diverse organic materials and minimizing potential risks associated with contamination, odor, and other environmental and public health impacts. These regulations, which vary by state, are typically less restrictive for composting facilities processing only yard trimmings. For example, operations may only need to register and meet basic requirements. In contrast, the permitting process to transition to also accepting food waste can be costly and challenging, creating a meaningful barrier to scaling food waste composting in the U.S. Similar to yard trimmings composting, the permitting requirements vary by state, in some cases quite dramatically.

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Assisted by state regulatory resources available on the US Composting Council’s website as a starting point, our team evaluated each of the 50 states’ permitting requirements across five factors to produce a final “Infrastructure Retrofit Score” that gauges the degree of difficulty and cost of upgrading existing yard trimmings-only composting facilities to process food waste as of July 2023. The final retrofit scores are illustrated in the heatmap (Figure 1) — green indicates states where the permitting landscape lends itself well to retrofitting yard trimmings-only sites to accept food waste, while orange and red indicate significant burdens a composter must overcome to set up a food waste composting site (i.e., over $1 million in upgrades and permitting costs, over 5 years to complete permitting process).

Generating The Heatmap: Five Factors Evaluated

The final “Infrastructure Retrofit Score” is based on the scores of the five factors introduced below. All factors were considered equally, without weighting one factor over another. Those states with lower scores reflect considerations of length of time needed, cost, and overall ease. States with staffing shortfalls that lengthen permit processing times scored lower than more well-staffed states. When assigning a final retrofit score, the team also considered whether a particular state could serve as a regulatory model for other states to emulate. The scoring of the five factors for each state in terms of whether a state serves as a model influenced the grading. The evaluation was, of necessity, somewhat subjective and based on the team’s experiences in working with various states, our knowledge of state government environmental regulations, and on information obtained through conversations and/or emails with state regulators and discussions with regulated composting facilities.

Ease of Permitting Process

State approaches to permitting composting operations vary; some are based on types of feedstocks accepted (e.g., yard trimmings only vs. taking biosolids). Others are based on quantities or location, e.g., farm, industrial site. Some states incorporate all those factors. This evaluation was qualitative and informed by previous experience getting food waste composting permits in a particular state, assessment of the degrees of knowledge about food waste composting by state regulators, and the extent to which precursor food waste permits had “smoothed the way” (e.g., if a state has gone through the process of permitting a retrofit or a new food waste facility).

For example, a state with other food waste composting operations would score higher than one without, or a state that required only a dedicated food waste receipt area as part of a permit modification would score higher than one that required installing an impervious waste receipt and composting pad along with a lined storm water management basin. It should be noted that ease of permitting does not reflect minimal best management practices (e.g., having an impervious waste receipt area) but instead addresses the requirements and the degree of compliance effort needed to incorporate food waste into a yard trimmings-only composting facility in a particular state.

Presence of Permitting Tier

A tiered permitting approach typically reflects the quantity and/or types and/or pathogenicity of feedstocks being accepted by a composting facility. Tiers based on pathogenicity potential could hinder composting of postconsumer food waste due to more rigorous design/construction/operations requirements. Therefore, states without tiers can be an advantage if postconsumer food waste is a feedstock. Tiers tied to processing capacity and footprints may potentially exempt smaller facilities in order to facilitate entry into food waste composting. In that instance, a state with no tiers would be a disadvantage.

Cost to Upgrade

The cost to upgrade a yard trimmings-only facility to process food waste is typically based on regulatory requirements such as having to upgrade to a more impervious pad, and to add storm water and leachate collection. Our team estimated the general costs of infrastructure improvements needed to accept food waste (e.g., hardened working areas, storm water management infrastructure, etc.) and cost of permitting or permit modifications. We did not evaluate the cost of land acquisition to expand the current facility footprint to take in food waste. Examples to illustrate this assessment include:

  • $ = $1,000 – $10,000: No permit modification fee nor need to upgrade infrastructure
  • $$ = $10,000 – $100,000: Permit modification fees and some infrastructure upgrade needed
  • $$$ = > $100,000: Significant permitting costs and/or infrastructure upgrades needed; often involves requirements for storm water management, including a separate permit

Time Needed to Upgrade

Using the team’s previous experience supporting yard trimmings-only facilities to go through the permitting process to add food waste in a particular state, our team evaluated the constraints for taking regulatory action, and the extent to which precursor food waste permits or permit modifications had “smoothed the way.” For example, a score of 1 = less than one year; 3 = 2-3 years; 5 = more than 5 years.

State Food Waste Disposal Ban

Finally, our team weighed in whether a state has a ban or mandate that restricts disposal of food waste. The cause and effect of a ban, in theory, is to incentivize more food waste composting capacity (as well as food waste prevention, recovery of edible food, anaerobic digestion, etc.).

State Examples

The following state examples illustrate the assessment process composters must undergo to be able to accept food waste:

New York State (Dark Green in Map): It is straightforward in New York State (NYS) for a yard trimmings-only composting facility to add source separated food waste to its operations. Quantities of food waste that can be accepted are based on a facility’s existing yard trimmings composting permit. For example, a yard trimmings facility with an exemption status (processing <3,000 cubic yards (cy)/year) can accept less than ≤1,000 lbs or ≤1 cy/week (whichever is greater) of source separated organics (SSO) that includes food waste and remain exempt from permitting. For facilities that process between >3,000 cy/year to <10,000 cy/year of yard trimmings, the exempt quantity of food waste can still be accepted without requiring a change to the facility’s permit or it can obtain an additional registration for food scraps, which would allow that facility to accept ≤5,000 cy or ≤2,500 wet tons, whichever is less, of SSO per year. Some NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regional offices may require a permit modification in this situation instead of an additional registration for composting food waste.

Standout features of New York State’s permitting landscape include:

  • No fees are associated with applying for a DEC registration or permit.
  • Relatively short approval process for modifications to registrations/permits or for a new registration is relatively short, taking approximately 3 to 6 months.
  • No pad requirements for registered composting facilities.

New York State was the only state among the 50 assessed to have a dark green final Infrastructure Retrofit Score because the team determined that the DEC’s regulatory framework serves as a model to other states to utilize — both for retrofitting existing yard trimmings-only composting facilities and significantly reducing the barriers to entry for small-scale food waste operations. Further, the DEC updates its organics recycling regulations to reflect emerging approaches to food waste collection and recycling options such as food waste drop-off sites, small-scale food waste haulers, fermentation (e.g., Bokashi), animal feed and codigestion with livestock manure.

Ohio (Light Green in Map): The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) has been advocating for yard trimming facilities to upgrade from their current Class 4 status (yard trimmings only) to Class 2, which allows pre and postconsumer food waste. The permit upgrade involves amending the registration with OEPA’s Bureau of Waste Management; obtaining a license to operate from the local Board of Health (following training); and providing financial assurance for remediation in the event of facility abandonment (fee is $2.50/cy of raw waste plus partially composted feedstock on-site). To upgrade to Class 2, Class 4 facilities need to focus investment on upgrading the waste receipt area (e.g., covered receiving areas and impermeable surface) and on leachate and storm water management. If everything is in place and correct, approval for a Class 2 permit takes about 2 months, but getting financial assurance lined up can cause delays of up to 6 to 8 months. OEPA does not have plans currently to advocate for a food waste disposal ban/diversion law due to inadequate infrastructure to process the diverted food waste.

South Carolina (Yellow in Map): To modify a permit from a Type 1 feedstock (including yard trimmings) to Type 2 (including pre and postconsumer food waste, except raw meat) requires submitting a modification application request to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) ePermitting system. To add/approve any additional feedstocks not listed explicitly on the approved feedstock list in DHEC regulations, a minor permit modification must be submitted, as well as a full toxicity characterization suite of testing to DHEC for assessment and approval. Also, acceptance of a Type 2 feedstock requires a public notice and a signed statement from a South Carolina licensed professional engineer, which increases cost and time required to upgrade. The operations plan needs to be updated to address Type 2 feedstocks and operations. Most applications are reviewed and processed within 30 to 60 days, depending on staff backlog and on how complete the composting application is.

Rhode Island (Orange in Map): The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is trying to speed up the food waste composting approval process and received U.S. EPA infrastructure funding (SWIFR) to hire a technical specialist to help permit applicants understand the regulations and permitting requirements. The solid waste rules have three tiers for composting yard trimmings and food waste: 1. Small-scale/No DEM approval: Up to 25 cy of vegetative only food waste at any one time;
2. Medium-scale/Registration with DEM: >25 cy and <600 cy at any one time of vegetative only food waste; other food waste, including meat and fish, must be composted first as a 60-day pilot before allowance to accept those feedstocks; and
3. Large-scale/DEM approval: >600 cy at any one time.

The state currently has 15 to 20 yard trimmings-only composting facilities. To accept food waste, yard trimmings facilities would have to undergo major upgrades including adding a hardened waste receipt/mixing area and adding in a leachate/storm water management system. Permit fees are $10,000 initially and $3,000 every three years for permit renewal for large-scale food waste composting facilities.

California (Red in Map): Composting facilities that accept all food waste types, including pre and postconsumer meat, fish and dairy along with yard trimmings, are required to obtain a solid waste permit from CalRecycle, the state’s regulatory agency, and undergo monthly inspections. Going through this process can also involve obtaining air and water quality permits administered by other regulatory agencies. Yard trimmings-only composting facilities are permitted under the notification tier (Tier 1). Composting less than 12,500 cy/year of vegetative food waste only requires a registration permit. The siting/design/operations requirements are very similar for both types. Vegetative food waste and yard trimmings-only composting facilities composting >12,500 cy/year require a solid waste permit.

Facilities accepting all food waste (i.e., including meat, fish and dairy) need to have an impermeable pad (1 x 10-5 cm/sec) and lined storm water pond (1 x 10-6). They also may need to purchase VOC (volatile organic compounds) offsets for adding new VOC sources to an air district, which can be expensive. Facilities in this category, including yard trimmings-only operations applying to accept all food waste types, also need to have their permit applications undergo a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. Including the upgrades to an impermeable pad and pond liner, CalRecycle staff estimated it would cost $10 million to $15 million to upgrade a 100,000 tons/year yard trimmings-only facility to begin accepting food waste. The CEQA review and Air District permits take a long time to obtain.

Small-Scale Carve Outs

The team decided to separately assess the barrier to entry for small-scale food waste composting facilities. In several states, the permitting and regulatory landscape enables small-scale facilities to be set up much more easily than commercial-scale food waste composting sites. These small-scale carve outs enable “testing the waters” or setting up a small-footprint site that suits community needs. The following factors were assessed:

  • Exemption from permit or registration tier designation for composting source separated food waste, typically based on quantity allowed (annually or at any one time) and type of food waste, e.g., pre and and/or postconsumer food waste
  • Allowance of all food waste types (i.e., meat, fish, dairy) vs. vegetative only
  • If time-limited or pilot status only vs. a tier with no time limitation
  • If a model for other states to utilize

Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Ohio are noted as the states where setting up small-scale facilities are the easiest. States where it is most difficult are Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Texas. Seventeen states in the U.S. don’t distinguish between small-scale operations and larger scale operations. These include Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and North and South Dakota.

Craig Coker is a Senior Editor at BioCycle CONNECT and a Principal at Coker Composting and Consulting near Roanoke VA. He can be reached at Nora Goldstein is Editor of BioCycle and principal of BioCycle Connect, LLC. Paula Luu is a Senior Project Director at Closed Loop Partners. She leads the firm’s Composting Consortium, which works closely with brands, composters and other key stakeholders to gather data that can inform the best path forward and drive value across the composting system.

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