Included below are highlights of best practices, policies, initiatives and programs in San Diego County and throughout the U.S. that directly facilitate organics management and composting or recognize its value as part of a sustainable, resilient food system. As mentioned in other sections of the toolkit, no San Diego jurisdiction has a comprehensive set of model rules, but some have language or provisions aligned with the vision of healthy foods and healthy soils. The notion that healthy food is connected to healthy soil is of burgeoning interest across the country, and many municipalities are in the process of developing or amending their policies. Most of the best practices researched, especially those related to urban agriculture, are relatively young programs that were instilled through efforts led by local food policy organizations similar to the San Diego Food Systems Alliance.

Redefining "Garbage"

In order to restore resource value and an appropriate perception towards compostables, and clearly differentiate them from "waste," some jurisdictions are updating their municipal codes to distinguish source separated organics or compostables from solid waste definitions, including the City of Chula Vista:

"Solid waste shall not include... materials or substances having commercial value or other importance which can be salvaged for reuse, recycling, composting or resale."

National City, California- includes "highest and best use" in their general plan update. 

"Goal CS-9:  Maximum diversion of materials from disposal through the reduction, reuse, and recycling of wastes to the highest and best use."

Highest and Best Use

Austin, Texas incorporates a variety of processing options for compostable materials in their municipal code, and encourages their highest and best use. 


(A) On-site recycling and organic material diversion services required under this article shall:

(4) remove the recyclable or organic materials by either:

(a) transporting the recyclable and organic materials to a materials recovery or composting facility authorized by law;

(b) contracting with a City-licensed recycling service provider to transport the recyclable and compostable materials to a materials recovery or composting facility authorized by law; or

(c) transporting recyclable or organic material, as permitted and required by City Code, to a material recovery facility, food bank, processor, material broker, urban farm, urban ranch, rural farm, rural ranch, community garden, or a facility that prioritizes the hierarchy of beneficial use as set out in Subsection (D) of this section.

(D) In accordance with the requirements of the Good Faith Donor Act set forth in Chapter 76 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, the department shall by rule encourage the responsible party for affected premises to follow the hierarchy of beneficial use of scrap food which, beginning with the most beneficial, is:

(1) feeding hungry people;
(2) feeding animals;
(3) providing for industrial uses; and
(4) composting.

Backyard Composting Incentives

The North Shore Recycling Program (NSRP), implemented by a tri-municipal government agency in the Province of British Columbia - provided free backyard “Compost Coaching” for residents in designated regions of Vancouver, Canada. Their efforts and subsequent analysis found that investing just over $16,000 in bin subsidies for backyard composting resulted in avoided tipping fees of $3.5M over a five year period. Factoring in training, the cost of implementing the program was much higher, but the returns proved to be substantial. Through their pilot training program it was learned households already composting that received personalized compost coaching composted 100 kilograms (220 pounds) more per year than those untrained, and households that received training and hadn't previously been composting, increased their organics diversion to 450 kg (990 lbs) per year. Households receiving training through the program also were found to increase their overall diversion through other behavior changes including spending habits and expanding what they compost at home. While several jurisdictions in San Diego county offer compost bin voucher programs, the NSRP demonstrates the significant beneficial impacts resulting from targeted outreach and education, as well as a financial commitment well beyond the budget of most home composting programs, with the confidence and understanding behind it that decentralized composting investment yields returns far greater than curbside collection can come close to.

Chula Vista, California provides backyard bin incentives if residents attend a free composting class or complete the Master Composter course, as does Austin, Texas.

Palo Alto, California gave attendees of thier free composting workshop in 2017 a compost or worm bin for no charge. The city also offers "Compost Parties," where a Master Composter will come to a resident's backyard and host a class on composting for 10-15 of their friends and neighbors.  

These are all great programs that go above and beyond to promote backyard composting. 

Composting for Manure Management

Composting manure is a best management practice that minimizes flies and odors, and creates a healthy soil amendment suitable for improving farmland soils, erosion control and managing stormwater runoff. 

A comprehensive, fair, manure management ordinance is performance-based and allows the property owner or manager operational flexibility.

Poway, California provides a good example of onsite manure management rules:

17.32.010 Keeping of large animals.

 "F. Disposal of Waste. Each property owner or lessee is responsible for the continuous maintenance of sanitary conditions which includes, but is not limited to, the cleaning of corrals, stables, barns and other areas to which animals have access. All wastes, including manure, urine and expended bedding, produced by said large animals shall be disposed of or treated on a regular basis so as to control flies and odor. Animal waste shall not be allowed to accumulate, run-off, or leach so as to create a nuisance or be offensive to other persons of reasonable sensitivities in the vicinity.
 Manure piles shall be located in a safe area away from any water source and out of natural drainage channels. Manure storage areas shall be designed to drain away from adjacent properties and so as to prevent surface water from leaching into streams, ditches or groundwater. Manure may not be stockpiled in required side, rear, or front yard setback areas. Manure may be disposed of by removal, fertilizing or composting. If waste is to be composted or used for fertilizer, proper procedures must be used to control insects and to minimize offensive odors."

Imperial Beach, California does as well, in its residential and agricultural runoff and discharge control requirements, as excerpted below:

8.30.110. Additional minimum best management practice requirements for agricultural operations.

"D.  Manure Management.

1.  Where practicable, all runoff from areas where livestock, horses or other large animals are confined must be collected and managed in a manner that avoids a discharge to the stormwater conveyance system or receiving waters. Where this is not practicable, manure must be cleaned up at least twice weekly; and must either be composted, or stored prior to disposal.

2.  Areas used for storing or composting manure must be located, configured or managed to prevent runoff to receiving waters or the stormwater conveyance system."

Composting as an Agricultural Process

Encinitas, California's Encinitas Ranch Zoning Ordinance, in the Encinitas Ranch Specific Plan, allows composting in agricultural zones within the Encinitas Ranch through “recycling of organic agricultural waste products and by-products for use within the Specific Plan Area.” Unfortunately, a major use permit is required if the products are sold or used outside the Specific Plan Area.

San Diego, California allows backyard composting and composting operations incidental to farming if the compost is used onsite. This important distinction does not require that materials be generated onsite, providing growers with a means to import materials needed to support their soil needs.

Montgomery County, Maryland overhauled its zoning code in 2014 and is currently re-evaluating composting through the directive of Bill 28-16, which requires the development of a “Strategic Plan to Advance Composting and Food Waste Diversion.”

The zoning code includes composting whenever agriculture or farming related definitions or uses are addressed. Definitions include:


        ...composting, growing, harvesting, and selling crops and livestock, and the products of forestry, horticulture, and hydroponics...

        Agricultural Processing:

        Agricultural Processing includes milk plant, grain elevator, and mulch or compost production and manufacturing…

        Farming and Accessory Agricultural Processing: 

        Farming includes the following accessory uses:

         …mulch or compost production and manufacturing.

       The production and manufacturing of mulch or compost where up to 20% of the materials used in accessory processing can come from off-site sources."

The State of Oregon has enacted performance-based rules that favor experienced operators, promote and exempt small facilities, and remove limitations on feedstocks agricultural composters may process. Despite the state’s actions, composting infrastructure has not developed at the pace hoped due to prohibitive local land use rules.

Decentralized Composting and Urban Agriculture

San Diego, California does not require land use permits for compost activities or facilities less than 500 cubic yards (food scraps, however, are not defined elsewhere as composting feedstocks, leaving them in a gray area open to interpretation by planners).

The Cities of Encinitas, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, National City, San Diego, and Unincorporated areas of the County of San Diego, California encourage composting as part of their community garden ordinances, although some require material be generated onsite or contributed by active garden members. Chula Vista requires a shared composting space in their community garden policy directive. Lemon Grove requires set-back requirements for composting areas and odor/pest management, and National City recognizes composting as an accessory use.

Poway, California specifically permits vermiculture (the raising of earthworms) in some low density residential zones, provided the operation is fully enclosed, does not exceed 10 percent of the lot size, and the raising area is no closer than 50 feet from any adjoining residential building.

Chicago, Illinois, with support from the Chicago Food Policy Action Council and their Compost Working Group, recently developed a revised composting ordinance that includes a low-cost permit for Urban Farm Accessory Composting Operations and expanded composting opportunities at community gardens. The city updated composting related definitions including differentiating source separated food scraps from garbage.

The State of Ohio moved to exempt composting activity less than 300 square feet in area, regardless of where the material was generated. This is a victory for community gardens and schools as many serve as drop-off sites for compostable materials. Ohio also adopted performance-based regulations that incorporate financial guarantees for larger composting programs requiring a permit, and provides incentives for urban agriculture programs to develop. The Buckeye State also prepared a "model zoning" guide that recognizes community gardens benefit from the regulatory exclusion in statewide composting rules only if local zoning codes align with state requirements. It recommends local zoning codes establish urban agriculture and community gardens as a “defined use” and composting as an “accessory use.”

Cleveland, Ohio, following their state's lead, amended their zoning ordinance to include performance-based composting as part of agricultural use in residential zones:

“Composting may be conducted on the premises of an agricultural use if limited to use on the subject property and if stored in a manner that controls odor, prevents infestation and minimizes run-off into waterways and onto adjacent properties."

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, Ohio formed the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition to take "a systems approach to the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County food system,” whereby “the food system doesn't end at the point of consumption. The goal of the Coalition’s Food Waste Recovery Working Group (FWRWG) is to develop efficient food waste recovery systems and infrastructure for the recycling and reuse of compostable materials from businesses, residents, and agencies.”

The FWRWG helped facilitate a "food waste audit" of the West Side Market. The study found that 500 to 700 pounds of compostable food waste is being generated each day the market is open, which adds up to over one ton per week.

“Using the data from the food waste audit, the City of Cleveland applied for a grant through Ohio Department of Natural Resources to obtain a grant to purchase two in-vessel composting units for the West Side Market. The majority of that food waste is now being composted.”

“Composting initiatives turn an expensive liability into a valuable input for building topsoil and the productive capacity of urban or rural farms that can, in turn, increase the availability of quality produce for local consumption.”Composting and Waste Recovery Policy Brief

The State of Massachusetts' “site assignment regulations” exempt small recycling operations (if they handle less than 100 tons per day), including small leaf and yard trimming materials and agricultural composting operations that accept pre-sorted recyclables (i.e., not mixed with other non-compostable materials), as long as these facilities register with Massachusetts DEP and meet certain conditions that ensure that they present little risk of nuisance or other potential problems. 

In addition, the regulations include a "Determination of Need" (or "DON") process through which the Massachusetts DEP may decide that a site assignment is not required for recycling and composting operations that will handle more than 100 tons of presorted material per day or are otherwise outside the scope of conditionally exempt operations. An application for a DON must include descriptions of what the operation will recycle or compost, and how the materials will be managed. It must also demonstrate that there is a market available for the recyclable or compostable materials.

Boston, Massachusetts recently enacted an urban agriculture zoning code, Article 89, which focuses on reducing barriers to commercial agriculture while facilitating development of diverse urban agricultural activities. Article 89 defines several types of urban farms and generously defines where uses are allowed or conditionally permitted.

What is unique and worth mentioning about Boston’s initiative is that in lieu of a conditional use permit, certain urban farms are permitted outright in designated residential, commercial and industrial zones with the caveat that they undergo a Comprehensive Farm Review (CFR), an expedited process conducted by Boston’s urban design staff. The CFR enables city staff to work closely with farmers in ensuring the proposed design will promote good relations with the neighborhood and minimize potential issues. The CFR includes both mandatory requirements and recommended design guidelines, the latter of which cannot be used as the basis to prohibit a farm from moving forward.

In regard to composting, Article 89 expressly allows farmers to compost as an accessory use (up to 7.5 percent of a farm area or property), so long as specified requirements are followed. This means a 10,000-square foot parcel would be allowed to have a 750-square foot composting area. Composting as a primary use is restricted to industrial zones as a conditional use only.

Centralized Composting, Composting Markets and other Creative Ideas

While no model zoning rules for large scale, or centralized composting were identified, programs and initiatives that facilitate centralized composting are not hard to find. 

The County of San Diego's Strategic Plan to Reduce Waste, adopted by the Board of Supervisors in April 2017, included in its immediate priorities that the County support development of large scale and decentralized composting facilities, as well as reviewing: 

"...its zoning ordinance and permitting requirements and make modifications that will clarify and support the start-up of on-site community, commercial, and farm composting projects, as well as large-scale facilities."

Locally, Oceanside and San Diego have also set the stage for more sustainable handling of compostables. Both cities have adopted and are implementing strategic Zero Waste plans. 

Twenty-five states and a multitude of local jurisdictions have implemented yard waste disposal bans, and states are jumping onboard with food waste bans as well. This should spur development of composting and mulch facilities. Although California does not specifically ban compostables (AB 1826 simply requires commercial generators to recycle), many jurisdictions do require mandatory recycling or impose their own bans, including Sonoma and Alameda Counties. Alameda’s commercial and multi-family mandatory recycling ordinance also requires those that generate food waste to sort compostables from their trash. In Vermont, mandatory composting/donation of food residuals is required for generators of more than 104 tons/year, if a composting facility is located within 20 miles of the generator. By July 1, 2020, the 20-mile limit no longer applies and the landfill ban for food residuals is in effect for all businesses and residents.

To promote participation in their residential food scraps ordinance, Palo Alto, California provides hacks from Zak Zero, Zero Waste Guy, as well as tips from local residents in making food scraps sorting and collection easy.  

Bans and various diversion requirements will not be successful unless they are supported with healthy compost markets and high demand.  King County, Washington recognizes the importance of compost markets and has a purchasing preference for locally-produced compost for use in landscaping projects. Many municipalities offer free compost to residents, including San Diego, residents of the Rethink Waste service area in San Mateo County, California and many more throughout California and across the USA.  

Organic farms demand compost products to support their operations. The more organic farms, the greater the demand for compost and mulch. Policies can indirectly promote demand of compost as well as onsite production of soil amendments. For example, to encourage locally produced food and to encourage conversion to organic farming, Woodbury County, Iowa provides property tax rebates for farmers who convert to organic farming. The policy also requires the county to purchase locally produced organic food through its food service provider and gives second level preference to non-organic local food production.

And when one has too much compost or raw feedstock materials on hand, why not just share?  Santa Cruz County, California's Resources Conservation District’s Organic Materials Exchange is an organic materials listing service where one can search for available manures, compost, and raw compost materials in the Central Coast area. Santa Cruz County Freecycle also lists items neighbors want to give away (such as organic materials, including food scraps). King Conservation District, serving King County, Washington, maintains a Manure Match Program linking livestock owners with manure available (for free) to people seeking compost and mulch. They even offer a compost spreader to rent to landowner's in their service district.