Keys to Developing Zoning and Land Use Rules Fair to Composting

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Planning for Healthy Foods, Healthy Soils

Urban agriculture policies, general plans, and strategic initiatives surrounding waste diversion, food systems and sustainability can all help shape the vision for healthy food and healthy soils. While planning and visioning is important, the regulatory structure and incentives must also be followed through and implemented. Successful programs will recognize and establish partnerships with industry, agriculture, community groups and feedstock generators. Education and outreach programs are essential to garner community participation; their value cannot be underestimated. Policies and programs should be thoughtfully coordinated to affect culture change.

In programs and policy, the highest and best use of organics should be implemented. While code amendments should include food scraps and landscape trimmings on the list of designated recyclables, model programs include policies that prioritize the highest and best use of that material before committing it to a green bin. This effort will require investment of time and resources to initiate the culture shift, but it will also be the most rewarding. 

Edible food can, and should be redirected to feed people. Food not suitable for donation should be collected to feed animals, when this option is available.

Consideration should be given to allow creative enterprise and repurposing. Entrepreneurs are transforming wasted food into value-added products, such as San Diego-based Misadventure Vodka, which converts old, inedible baked goods into a hedonistic treat for adults. Manures can be redistributed to other farms or composted onsite. Community gardens and urban farms should be allowed to collect compost feedstocks (i.e., compost ingredients) and can serve as outlets for the smallest generators, including juice bars and coffee shops. 

Through the planning effort, evaluation of compostable materials tonnages, generator types, “highest and best use” diversion potential, as well as availability of land should be considered when developing a plan for organics management. Land availability is not limited to open space, but also a variety of parcels that could be converted to agricultural or composting uses (including vacant lots, yards and warehouses). Areas that are primarily urban and densely populated will have programs and land use designations that significantly differ from more rural areas with an intensive agricultural character. Urban areas are suited for distributed small to mid-scale sites and in-vessel projects, whereas heavy commercial, industrial and rural areas could accommodate a range of compost scales.

It's relatively easy to add another green-colored bin designated for source separated organics. Municipalities like the idea because it puts requirements on the hauler to implement a program, although generators may not appreciate the increase in hauling rates. Centralized collection and processing programs can be expensive and can take the most resources to implement. They also require a centralized processing facility with the capacity and financial resources to handle high volumes. Not in My Backyard sentiments (NIMBYism), expensive real estate and extensive permitting requirements present siting issues for centralized processing facilities. Contaminates in the compost bin is a major concern, as it not only affects the quality of the end product, but can results in higher processing costs passed on to the cities sending material to the facility.

Franchise agreements have an impact on organics recycling programs due to definitions of solid wastes and materials “owned” by the franchisee, in some cases limiting small-scale collection and decentralized processing options. Properly executed franchises provide haulers incentive to invest in infrastructure, yet these agreements can stifle innovative approaches to resource management and limit the potential of start-up companies and entrepreneurship. Although not addressed in this toolkit, this dynamic warrants close review and attention to ensure resource handling opportunities are maximized on a multi scale basis. Models in the toolkit do include strategic direction and incentives to preserve the highest and best use of the materials, and offer diverse collection and processing options, with a strong focus on ensuring compost products are redirected back to the community, local farms and impoverished soils. 

Develop Clear, Concise and Consistent Policies

Efforts to develop new policies and ordinances should aim for clarity, concision and consistency in terms and definitions in common language throughout the municipal and zoning codes that are also consistent with CalRecycle Title 14 terminology and initiatives. 

If possible, existing rules should be wiped clean to remove duplicative, ambiguous and outdated terms and definitions, as well as any provisions already regulated by state composting rules and the Local Enforcement Agency (LEA).  

Any facilities or uses exempt from a local permit should still adhere to public health and safety regulations, as well as nuisance rules. The municipal code should include performance standards. An exemption does not mean the jurisdiction cannot regulate the activity. Composting must be properly managed by experienced operators, and to help exempt sites succeed, jurisdictions should support educational resources and tools to facilitate success.

Streamline Permits through Uses and Zones

Comprehensive model programs and policies recognize composting of all sizes, shapes and technologies, and provide appropriate permitting and exemptions based on these factors. Rules should streamline permit processing where certain composting activities are permitted by right, and others are permitted through an administrative (or ministerial) permit. 

CalRecycle facility permits already recognize operational and size distinctions between facilities. Thus, local permits can be structured on a fee basis and may include form-based standards that dictate aesthetics, traffic access, parking, and signage to ensure the facility is compatible with the neighborhood's character, or performance-based standards that address how the operation is being managed.

It is not the purpose of this toolkit to select a preference between open composting, in-vessel composting or in-vessel digestion, nor centralized and decentralized approaches, but to provide a fair and level playing field in terms of zoning and land use. All operation sizes and processing technologies ultimately produce a product that is valuable for the soil. For simplicity, in-vessel composting and anaerobic digestion facilities can be ascribed to similar land uses and given the same zoning allocations. The caveat being that anaerobic digestion facilities are energy production facilities and are evaluated as local renewable energy sources.


Further Considerations on Anaerobic Digestion...

Anaerobic digestion technologies are often proprietary and system designs and processes vary from one vendor to another may not be comparable. Some of the systems being marketed are exceptional, and may be a good option depending on the dynamics of the region, including financial considerations and availability of feedstocks suitable for production of both biogas and compost. Planners considering an anaerobic digestion facility in their jurisdiction should ask how the proposed process will achieve pathogen reduction, how liquid digestate will be handled/processed, and how the solid digestate will be handled/processed. 

When in-vessel digestion is pursued, it is recommended that the digestate meet limits for metals and contaminants, undergo pathogen reduction, as well as curing or further processing to create a stable soil amendment.

The application of digestate, or biosolids, derived from wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) digesters is not allowed in organic farming and thus, co-digestion of compostables in WWTP digesters is not recommended in San Diego County unless the two streams are entirely segregated.

While digestate from biosolids is not, and will not, be allowed in organic agricutlure, the National Organics Standards Board is currently reviewing a petition to consider whether to allow the use of anaerobic digestate derived from compostables (including food waste) in organic agriculture, to be discussed at their October 2017 meeting.

With San Diego leading the organic farming movement and many more farmers following organic farming practices, it is essential that composting infrastructure as well as end-use markets be developed to support healthy soils for local agricultural industries. 


Enhanced Backyard Composting Programs

Model programs expand backyard training and bin incentive programs to include social marketing and direct outreach and education. The jurisdiction may implement the program itself, or partner with a community group to implement it. Training and classes held directly at homes, field visits and offers for direct support, as well as assignment of neighborhood "compost ambassadors"  have all proven successful. Model programs offer discounted or free bins on the condition that the resident first attends a compost class. Such programs yield a big bang for their buck,  empowering residents with knowledge and tools while keeping resources hyper-local and reducing demands on centralized composting infrastructure.  Such ideas are equally applicable to schools,  farms and small business to further promote onsite composting for waste diversion, soil health and sustainability. 

Market Development of Compost

Model programs align sustainability policies and requirements to facilitate market demand for compost. New regulations mean markets will flood with compost products. To help facilitate compost demand, model programs will also include procurement of locally produced compost for application as best management practices (BMPs) in their landscaping, stormwater and erosion control practices, especially in development and transportation projects. Parks and existing green spaces will also greatly benefit from compost and mulch applications.