Overview of San Diego County Jurisdictions' Zoning and Land Use Rules Addressing Composting


Compostables are not "Garbage"

Compostable materials, including food scraps, pose significant public health and sanitation challenges when treated as a solid waste material, aka "garbage." This material quickly builds up. Odors, flies, and the "ick" factor dictate that the material be taken “away” as quickly and quietly as possible, without much thought as to where “away” really is. The consequences of its handling and disposal is an afterthought. Yet this material is an enormous agricultural resource provided it's collected, diverted from the landfill, and directed to more sustainable outlets like farms and compost facilities. Simply by not calling it “garbage,” and recognizing it as a recyclable or compostable material of intrinsic value, we begin the change of how it is perceived, collected, transported and processed.

Definitions of of these high value compostable materials common to California and San Diego County municipal codes include “garbage,” “waste,” “solid waste,” “refuse,” and “putrescibles.” Kitchen and table food scraps, leftovers, and any other foods of vegetative or animal matter intended for human consumption but not consumed are referenced. All of these definitions predetermine the fate of materials to disposal.  Several, and in some cases, all of these classifications are included in various sections of San Diego County jurisdictions' municipal codes. This leads to confusion about what materials are "waste" and which are resources that fall under California's myriad new rules and initiatives to recover them. Planners from San Diego County jurisdictions interviewed have expressed difficulties in developing organics recycling ordinances or policies because existing solid waste definitions already prescribe and justify how these materials shall be handled and disposed of. This toolkit intends to narrow that gap.

Composting for Manure Management

Onsite composting of manure is an established best practice recognized by four of the seven jurisdictions that address manure management in their codes. One jurisdiction effectively suppresses both onsite and offsite manure management options by explicitly requiring a Minor or Major Use Permit for most animal waste processing. Research suggests that a small percentage of horse manure is composted in San Diego County jurisdictions and the majority is landfilled or mismanaged by dumping it in back lots, open spaces, etc. This is due to a variety of reasons, including lack of will or resources by the owner to conduct onsite processing, and lack of collection and composting infrastructure even if recycling options are desired.  

Large-Scale or Centralized Composting

Challenges that affect the siting of large-scale, centralized facilities include NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard – negative sentiments of residents and adjacent businesses located near proposed/existing sites), expensive real estate, and ambiguous or non-existent policies. Despite these issues and need for infrastructure to meet state mandates and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, only three jurisdictions address commercial composting facilities, defined as an industrial use. Outdated definitions of feedstocks are limited to green materials, wood wastes and/or manures. Commercial and residential-based food materials are not defined in compost feedstock or facility type definitions, which represents a major gray area and challenge for development of emerging uses and facilities. 

Barriers and Opportunities for Small to Mid-Scale Composting

Where composting is addressed in municipal codes, the majority of jurisdictions do not differentiate between the various scales and technologies of composting activities, nor the variety of feedstocks that can be processed. Most jurisdictions would require development of small to mid-scale composting projects, and even in-vessel composting, to go through the same level of rigorous permitting as large-scale facilities. The permit costs and obstacles present formidable challenges, and are often immediate deal breakers. Jurisdictions in San Diego County are slowly becoming more aware of and responding to these challenges, as the Rules We Like! section of this toolkit will attest. Codes and policy initiatives being implemented to positively affect organics management and facilitate composting of various types are highlighted, and despite the barriers, opportunities abound. 


Composting in Zoning Codes

None of the 19 jurisdictions in San Diego County properly and thoroughly address composting through their municipal codes, and no codes are written to address the range and scales of organics processing options. Jurisdictions with the most established codes are those with the most outdated, and require modification to address statewide regulations and changing regional dynamics. As mentioned in the section, Composting - Benefits, Siting and Methods, composting is generally viewed as a solid waste or industrial activity, if addressed in municipal codes at all. While some jurisdictions mention composting in their health and sanitation code, composting as a use and the permitting process required is not necessarily defined in their respective zoning code.

"Generated Onsite, Used Onsite"

It is generally accepted that materials generated onsite and used onsite are exempt from a permit, especially backyard and agricultural composting. Six jurisdictions expressly provide this exemption, though interpretation in a few codes gets hazy due to size limits and permit requirements mentioned elsewhere in their respective codes. Interest in onsite composting is rising, although sites including restaurant rows and commercial strip malls might not have a use for all the finished product, nor produce the bulking agent required to compost the materials they generate efficiently. Existing codes are not in sync with state initiatives to allow businesses, schools and other entities to self-manage their compostables.

Decentralized and Agricultural Composting

Farms, community gardens and sites where agricultural uses are permitted all serve as logical recipients of organic materials to produce soil amendments, if only regulations allowed them to import such materials from commercial and residential generators. Most San Diego jurisdictions with community garden ordinances limit composting to material generated onsite or provided by active garden members. Regulators have expressed concerns about opening up commercial or industrial composting activities to agricultural sites and whether the character of the agricultural use would be preserved. Composting, though historically a normal agricultural activity, is generally not defined as an agricultural activity in county jurisdictions' municipal codes, nor is it specified as a use or accessory use in agricultural zones. Under current rules, importing or maintaining small composting volumes onsite would trigger a Use Permit, an expensive and lengthy process, even if the composting activity remained accessory to the property’s primary use. 


Vermicomposting/vermiculture is of emerging interest because the vermicompost and earthworms produced provide two streams of value added products. The activity itself does not require a composting permit from CalRecycle (though collection/transfer of feedstocks could require a transfer permit, and pre-composting of feedstocks may depending on the volume and temperatures of the piles). Vermicomposting is typically classified as a backyard composting or educational classroom activity and is undervalued for its commercial potential. Only three jurisdictions specifically address vermiculture in zoning and lad use codes, though others encourage it in backyard and educational settings.  When defined, the codes include limits on activity size and/or source of materials in residential applications. Commercial vermiculture is not addressed well, and in most codes, not at all.

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