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Introducing self: I’m a co-organizer of the CA Community Compost Coalition, which is working to ensure the viability of community composting in CA, comprised of 7 orgs, each of which has grappled with various facets of law and policy. California is a state where community composters have encountered a lot of legal barriers, so we also hope to share lessons learned. Today I’m here as a volunteer for Sustainable Economies Law Center, which has a program – in collaboration with ILSR -- to research and educate communities about compost law and policy, and this year I am working with the Law Center to organize a local soil policy team, which I’ll say more about in a minute. I’m also the founder of Common Compost, which...
Sustainable Economies Law Center created a program on compost law and policy because, multiple times, community members came to their legal advice clinics with a simple question: “I’d like to start a small neighborhood project or micro-enterprise to recover food waste and compost it. Is there anything I need to know about the law?” It turned out that there are SO many things you need to know in multiple areas of law! AND there is so much variation from city to city and state to state! Not only that, we can expect these laws to change often as the composting sector grows and diversifies.
Given the sheer overwhelming nature of compost law, Sustainable Economies Law Center is working to break it down into some categories to help sort through it. Take a look at your handout. And it would be great to get feedback on this way of organizing the information. The goal is to empower people in everywhere to become local compost law experts. You could take a chart like this, get together with friends, and have a kind of legal research party or “hackathon” to research the kinds of laws named on the chart. Most laws are online.
And here’s the basic break down. We can start by dividing the laws and policies two major categories based on what their goals are. First, there are many laws designed to protect communities, air, and water from potential nuisances or pollution that could result from poorly managed compost. Second, there are both laws and programs designed to help communities scale up composting. Both the protective laws and planning processes can pose challenges for small-scale composting, mainly because both are often written with large scale composting in mind..
Under the two categories of protection and planning, the laws are different depending on where in the compost process you are working. So let’s start where waste is generated, and we have a somewhat bewildered-looking cartoon carrot-top to walk us through the process and demonstrate the laws and policies it will navigate. For the sake of health, the environment, and aesthetics, there are a lot of rules that govern bins and dumpsters, what form they take, where they are placed, whether or not you can see them from the street, how often they are emptied. Community composters may not be able to just go pick up buckets of vegetable scraps at a restaurant, for example. These all tend to be local laws, but not always. Restaurants and food manufacturers, for example, may be subject to state health and safety rules impacting how they manage and store food scraps. And on the planning side, there are programs that train, support, or require generators to source separate.
Next, there’s the question of who can come collect and haul compostables. For community composters, this may present the biggest hurdle of all, because of the trend of cities contracting with large scale haulers and sometimes granting them a monopoly. In Oakland, not only is it illegal for community composters to pick up most kinds of veggie scraps and green waste, the state legislature has even recently considered a bill to increase penalties for people who pick up green waste. In other places, community composters can get hauling permits, but the process can be onerous and expensive.
Next, there is the question of where and how the composting is done, with both state compost facility licensing laws and local zoning laws to navigate, in addition to a variety of health and environmental laws that may be enforced by multiple agencies: like air and water quality districts. Sometimes, these laws have clear exemptions for small scale facilities, or for vermicomposting, and so on. Other times, the permits these laws require are far too burdensome for small scale composters to justify the expense. And most subsidies to support development of composting capacity are going to larger-scale facilities.
And if a carrot top can successfully navigate the laws governing bins, haulers, and compost facilities so that it, at last, becomes reborn as rich soil, now where can that soil go? In some places, laws designed to ensure truthful labeling of fertilizers have imposed on compost sellers requirements to test and label the compost. This can be a good thing, if it gives us the opportunity to show that we are producing really good dirt! On the other hand, it’s another cost added onto an enterprise that with little to no margins.
All of this adds up! One member of our coalition in California, Food2Soil, has work persistently for nearly three years to overcome barriers, any one of which could have put an end to their work! It forced to them to adapt and limit their work in ways that weren’t ideal. Fortunately, now they are selling shares of their craft compost, but even so, their growth is limited by the laws. Things just shouldn’t be this hard for community composters! Most of these laws can cost so much money to comply with that it reinforces the trend toward large-scale composting; only the big players can afford to play. And there are great community compost enterprises that are successful in nearly every respect, but they are afraid of scaling, because they know that any one of the many compost laws could be a deal-breaker for them at some point. And let’s face it, many great compost groups simply operate under the radar, and that’s neither sustainable or scaleble.
Given the many challenges for community composters, there are a lot of laws and policies that we need to change or create, and – importantly – RIGHT NOW is the time to do it. Policy advocates often refer to something called a “policy window.” A policy window opens when you have a convergence of things: widespread recognition of and concern about a problem, viable policy solutions, and a political mood interested in tackling the issue. If you go to policy school, they generally tell you that policy windows are somewhat rare. But when it comes to compost, quite likely, policy windows are opening or about to open all over the place. Because cities and states are setting ambitious goals to reduce waste, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve soil health – in California, the goal is to reducing what we send to landfills by 75% by 2020, including getting all compostables out of landfills by 2020, which is the year after next. It has really snuck up on us, and we are nowhere near achieving this goal. So we have a glaring problem. It’s time for the community compost movement to step up and say: “oh hello, we have a solution, and here are some very practical policies that our communities can adopt.” Not only are we likely to encounter a receptive political mood, there are literally pieces of legislation and regulatory proceedings happening right now, today, that we can have influence in.
Here are a few of those windows or opportunities for shaping compost law. Many are contexts where rules and programs are in the process of being created by public entities that are required to seek input from the general public. We should look at all of these kinds of rulemaking proceedings as opportunities to carve out space and support for community composting. Likewise, any time a city is thinking about bid-seeking or contracting for haulers, that’s a time to speak up and make sure that contracts do not write community composting out of the picture. Every year in California, there are bills that impact composting, and each bill is an opportunity to speak up for or against or to suggest amendments. The community composting movement should be sticking its head in every one of these windows so that lawmakers can’t ignore us. And we should be even more proactive by drafting the legislation we want, and getting some of our people on appointed commissions that have influence in these matters.
And it’s so important that we think of ourselves – the composters -- as the policymakers who will do this work. Lawyers don’t learn about compost in law school. Politicians don’t get elected because they know about compost. WE are the experts, so we are the best positioned to be policymakers. A lot of us are used to weighing in on policy issues by signing petitions here and there, voting on ballot initiatives, etc. But to actively WRITE legislative proposals and SPEARHEAD campaigns – that’s not something that everyday people tend to do. This needs to change.
Here’s an approach we are trying in Oakland. We have recruited a team of 8 urban farmers and will meet with them once per month this year, do fun team-building activities, provide training on compost law and policy advocacy, and see where that takes us. Hopefully this group will actively poke its head in many policy windows. If this works, we’re thinking that we could create standardized curriculum to support people in forming compost policy teams across the US. This way, everyday people everywhere can be better advocates for soil and compost in their communities.
For examples, we can all talk about ways of defining community composting and various sub-categories of that, like community micro-composting, cooperative micro-composting, and so on. In some laws, definitions of “community composting” have already been codified, but they aren’t necessarily the definitions WE would choose if we were writing the laws. For example one air quality management district in CA defines community composting as composting done by homeowners associations. And of course, best management practices – we should be proactive in creating them because regulators will sometimes want them codified, and some regulators may even mandate training certification for composters, so perhaps we should proactively create training programs to fill that need if it arises.
And as for how to go about advocacy….(janelle started running out of steam here) Exemptions are already common in the law, and generally apply to activities that are small-scale, low-impact, infrequent, and/or operated by a nonprofit or cooperative. Tiers: The difficulty of many current compost regulations is that they are designed for large-scale composting, and the cost of compliance is too high for small-scale operators. Rights: Another approach is to establish a basic right to backyard composting for renters and residents of homeowners associations, so that landlords and HOAs cannot block people from composting.
Overall, our community composting movement has a lot to discuss, so that we can hopefully get on the same pages about our approaches to policy change. There may be a diversity of approaches, particularly as we recognize that there are spectrums on which composting takes places. For the most part, the legal status of backyard composting and large-scale composting is pretty clear. It’s everything in between that our legal system and policymakers haven’t fully grappled with, and within that, there may be many different solutions, gradations or tiers of regulation, different categories of exemptions and so on. So hopefully this will be the beginning of a much richer conversation.
The design of the enterprise and its orientation toward community benefit is a key axis in the spectrum of considerations, and we should craft policies that facilitate community-oriented or stakeholder-oriented compost enterprises, both large and small.
Because Sustainable Economies Law Center wants to collect this information!
Policy and Legal Obstacles to Community Composting
The People’s Quick Guide to
Compost Law & Policy
We started researching compost laws...
There are MANY LAYERS of compost laws!
Everywhere you go, they are DIFFERENT!
And they are always CHANGING!
Policy Guide Handout:
A first attempt to simplify and organize things!
Compost Legal Research Roadmap Compost Policy Advocacy Roadmap
Two major categories of laws and policies:
Laws that protect against air/water pollution, odors,
pests, fire, unattractive compost bins or facilities,
safety, traffic, and inaccurate fertilizer labeling.
A challenge for community compost:
These are important laws, but they are often
designed for large-scale composting.
Laws and programs to divert waste from
landfills, streamline collection and
composting, and improve soil.
A challenge for community compost:
Top-down planning often favor large-scale
You need 5
Laws that govern dumpsters and bins,
including their size, appearance, location,
and frequency with which they are
Programs to support, encourage, and/or
● Local hauling permit requirements
● Vehicle permit requirements
● Permitting of transfer sites
Increasingly, municipalities have centralized
hauling systems and sometimes give exclusive
hauling rights to one or a few haulers, which
prohibits others from hauling.
● Facility permitting and oversight
● Zoning approval for facility location
● Local/regional air, water, vector control,
and fire regulations
Grant, loan, and technical assistance
programs to help establish compost
4. New Soil
● Laws requiring testing and labeling of
compost for sale
● Laws determining application allowed
for different quality grades of soil
Grant, loan, and technical assistance
programs to encourage application of
compost to improve soil quality and
Impressive! Food2Soil in San Diego faced and
overcame four difficult barriers:
1. State facility permitting: Until CA created an exemption for small facilities.
2. Zoning approval: Food2Soil adapted their model and found a way forward.
3. Labeling law: Food2Soil adapted their plans and negotiated with the state agency.
4. Hauling prohibition: Food2Soil advocated and changed city law.
Most composters will have to do the same...
Things shouldn’t be this hard for community composters!
The time to create community compost laws is:
1. Awareness of
2. Viable policy
Examples of Policy Windows in California:
Rulemaking, administrative, and regulatory proceedings:
● Bay Area Air Quality Management District is about to make rules about compost.
● CalRecycle (state agency) is implementing SB 1383, creating rules and programs to reduce
methane emissions from landfills.
● All California cities must implement SB 1000, requiring that they address issues of environmental
justice when they update their general plans.
Municipal bid-seeking and contracting processes:
● Sacramento, for example, and many other cities!
Give input on legislation:
● Opposed AB 1147, which increased penalties for people
who collect waste without a permit.
● We drafted a bill (but have not yet introduced it) to carve out protections for community micro-
composters that would otherwise be excluded under exclusive hauling franchise agreements.
Become a legislator! Seek appointments to local and state waste and recycling commissions.
A group of 8 community members who, in 2018, will:
● Have fun: Meet monthly, eat food, build community!
● Learn about the law: You’ll become a compost law expert!
● Build policy advocacy skills: Learn about lawmaking!
● Advocate and change laws: Identify advocacy priorities,
give input to state agencies currently writing regulations,
and maybe even write some laws!
● Celebrate successes! Celebrate failures! Celebrate the right
to make people-powered soil!
The community compost movement can start
NOW to lay groundwork for policy advocacy!
1. Create shared definitions of things like
“community micro-composting” and
“composting cooperative,” so we can tailor
laws to each.
2. Adopt best management practices
(BMPs) and basic training programs: To
address regulators’ potential concerns
about health and the environment, we can
adopt shared BMPs, along with training
programs for compost handlers, to grow
confidence in the practices of small-scale
Approaches to policy-making:
1. Exemptions: Codify definitions and sub-categories
of “community micro-composting,” then create exemptions
from regulatory programs and franchise exclusions.
2. Tiers of regulation: Create tiered regulations that apply more appropriate
and less burdensome requirements to small-scale composters.
3. Rights-based: Advocate for recognition of a basic human right to soil, or
use another rights-based framework, like the human right to food and
human right a clean environment, to protect people’s ability to compost.
4. Incentive programs: A growing number of governments grants are
available for GHG reductions, healthy soils, and so on. Let’s advocate for
funding for community composting!
We need to address the middle part of the spectrum:
The spectrum of composting options that
our legal system has yet to address:
Compost education organizations
Farm cooperatives Nonprofit
Soil remediation Worker cooperatives
Urban farms and food systems
Perhaps we create another axis:
Structured for profit
Composting at schools
and community gardens
● Have any favorite laws?
● Stories of legal challenges or solutions?
● Feedback on the Legal Research Roadmap handout?
● Thoughts on policy approaches? Like:
○ Creating definitions for community composting?
○ Creating exemptions?
● Come chat with me today if:
○ You are interested in volunteering
for the Law Center.
○ You have thoughts on
any of the above.
○ Compost law freaks you out.
Executive Director, SELC
Founder and Director, Common Compost
THANK YOU and ROT ON!