July 18, 2011 | General

Food Scraps Programs In The United States

BioCycle July 2011, Vol. 52, No. 7, p. 18
USEPA-funded study identifies and evaluates residential and commercial food scraps collection and composting programs. Tonnages diverted, program costs and tip fee comparisons are summarized. Part I
Juri Freeman and Lisa Skumatz

A RECENTLY completed comprehensive study of food scraps programs in the United States surveyed existing and discontinued food scraps composting programs to explore best practices. Conducted under an USEPA Region 5 grant, the research assessed the “state of the union” and the state-of-the-art for current food scraps programs and analyzed the underlying success factors and best management practices (BMPs).
This article is the first in a two-part series on this research study. This first article reviews results of the national inventory and survey. The second part (to be published next month) addresses BMPs and success factors of identified programs in the U.S.

To assemble an inventory of residential and commercial food scraps programs, the authors combed the trade literature (including BioCycle) and reports. This information was augmented with data from a large in-house database of community programs and costs across North America. We then contacted nearly 100 communities with residential and/or commercial programs in the U.S. The interview process with the first set of programs resulted in a second list of additional communities with potential programs. Ultimately, a total of 183 food scraps composting programs currently operating in the U.S. were identified. (Since the report was released we have identified another half-dozen programs that are not included in the count.)
The 183 food scraps composting and collection programs identified include communities with residential and/or commercial programs but does not include communities in which one or just a few commercial entities are composting food scraps. The university and institutional sectors were for the most part omitted in this research (see our website for more information on these programs).
More than 80 percent of the food scraps programs nationally are located in three states – Washington, Minnesota and California. There are noticeably fewer programs in the south, the southeast, the northeast and the western plains. EPA Region 10, which includes Washington, Oregon and Idaho, leads the nation (62 communities), followed by Region 5 (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which has 55. Region 9 (California, Nevada, Hawaii, Arizona) and Region 1 (New England) follow in terms of the number of programs. Overall, 8.6 million U.S. residents, or 2.7 percent of the total U.S. population, live in communities in which food scraps programs are available for at least a portion of the population.
The characteristics and programmatic aspects of communities with food scraps collection vary widely across the country and the performance and success of the programs are dependent on these variations. Communities that adopt food waste programs tend to have very strong diversion rates (an average residential diversion rate of over 50 percent) and many of them already had successful recycling and yard trimmings diversion programs prior to adding food scraps to the organics stream. The common attributes of both residential and commercial programs (although they are always crafted to fit the community’s needs and capabilities) are shown in Table 1.

Knowing the overall diversion rate in communities with food scraps programs only tells part of the story. Is the high diversion rate due to food scraps collection or did the community already have a great diversion rate and then added food scraps to the organics stream as a way to reach that next level of diversion? To determine the actual impact of collecting food scraps on community diversion rates, we examined the tonnage, participation, and pre and post data from the communities studied.
Residential: Curbside organics programs, including yard trimmings and food waste combined, divert an estimated 25 to 30 pounds per participating household per week. Food scraps alone account for 7 to 9 pounds per participating household per week. It is important to note that participation in organics and food scraps programs varies greatly across programs and is highly dependent upon how the program is set up (mandatory pay versus voluntary, etc.). The average level of participation over all of the programs examined was in the range of 35 to 45 percent of eligible households with a maximum participation of around 95 percent in a community with no separate fee for the yard/food program and a minimum of 10 percent or less in communities with separate fees.
Commercial: Determining the impacts of food scraps composting on the commercial sector can be a challenge. Only a portion of the communities responding to the survey was able to report commercial diversion rates. Overall, the average commercial diversion rate was reported to be 21 percent with a maximum of 42 percent and a minimum of 8 percent. Unlike the residential sector, where the program may cover a very large portion of the population, commercial programs in most communities include only a small segment of targeted or eligible businesses. This makes it difficult to determine an average diversion rate per business. Additionally, diversion varied depending on the business type (restaurants compared to grocery stores or office buildings) and program type. Compounding the issue was that many communities lump commercial and multifamily tonnages together making it nearly impossible to determine actual diversion per business. Diversion of the eligible waste stream in participating businesses was reported to be anywhere from 20 to 90 percent with a high level of variability depending on the type of business, program aggressiveness, education and outreach, and other factors.

Residential: The level of program fees depends on a number of factors including whether or not the fees for food scraps/organics are embedded in the trash rates, whether or not there is PAYT (pay as you throw) in place, and whether or not the program is mandatory pay or not. Taking these potential factors into account, the average rate charged to a household for organics collection including food scraps and yard trimmings was reported to be $7.70/month with a median of $7.50/month. On average, we find that in communities with a separate fee for organics, the cost of organics collection is about one-third of the cost of trash collection. The average monthly trash fees were reported to be $21.80 with a median value of $21.50/month. (The maximum rate was close to $70/month for one California city with PAYT, organics and recycling and the largest size trash cart.) Combined, the average rate charged to households for trash, recycling and organics collection was reported to be $27.90/month/household.
Just under one-third of the communities reported that the fees for organics collection were included in their trash rates (embedded) and only one quarter reported that organics collection was a mandatory pay program (mandatory separate fee). Only about 10 percent of the programs are mandatory participation, that is, residents can potentially be penalized for not source separating organics. The rest were voluntary fee for optional organics service.
Commercial Costs: The average cost per month charged to businesses for food scraps collection was reported to be about $60/cubic yard for once a week collection. Of course, prices varied widely depending on service level (container size and collection frequency). One cubic yard with once weekly collection was a common option available in many of the programs. Generally, organics collection has a lower rate than trash service; however, in some communities this difference is based not on the “real” cost to provide services but is instead subsidized or required to be that way by ordinance. The difference between food scraps collection and trash collection costs varied from only a few dollars cheaper to food collection being 75 percent cheaper than trash services. For those communities reporting data, compost collection costs averaged around 40 percent less than trash collection services, resulting in a real economic incentive for businesses to participate.

An economically driven program – one in which the tip fees for trash are higher than the fees to tip organics – tends to be the most common and successful model for implementation of a food scraps composting program (and probably the easiest to implement). That is not to say, however, that a program cannot be successful if the tip fees locally or statewide are cheaper for composting than landfilling. States such as Colorado, where in some places the trash tip fees are significantly lower than the costs to tip organics/food waste, are seeing growth in programs despite the challenging economic factors. Additionally, portions of Minnesota have organics tip fees that are equal to or higher than MSW tip fees and they are one of the national leaders in number of programs based on our survey findings.
The average tip fee for MSW in communities with food scraps programs was reported to be $82/ton. The average cost to tip organics, including food scraps, was reported to be $44/ton. However, the important comparison is community-by community differences between MSW and organics tipping fees.
In 88 percent of the communities reporting, it is cheaper to tip organics than it is to tip MSW while in the other 12 percent it costs more to tip organics at the composting facility than MSW at the landfill. The average difference between the cost to tip MSW and organics was reported to be $28.00. At the one extreme, it costs $28 more to tip materials at the composting facility than to landfill. At the other end of the spectrum, it is $88 cheaper to bring materials to the composting site than to drop off materials at the landfill. When the compost and landfill rates are compared, the compost tip fees are, on average, 29 percent cheaper than the tip fees at the landfill.

Our national survey uncovered nearly 200 food scraps programs in the U.S. and provides confirmation that this is a growing trend for materials management. Program adoption has been increasing steadily since the early 2000s with the largest number of new programs started in 2006. Program attributes were as varied as the communities in which they were located. Whether the community was rural or urban, or materials collected by municipal staff or haulers, program managers have found a way to make organics diversion work. Next month’s article will discuss the strategies communities have employed to make their programs work and highlights many of the best management practices for operating programs in the U.S.

Juri Freeman is a Senior Environmental Analyst at The Econservation Institute ( and Skumatz Economic Research Associates (; 303-494-1178). Lisa Skumatz, PhD, is founder of The Econservation Institute and Principal of SERA. Freeman and Skumatz work with communities, counties, states, and federal agencies to analyze effective and cost-effective solid waste diversion strategies. This Econservation Institute project was conducted under a grant from EPA Region 5.

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