The New Normal: Mandatory Organic Waste Recycling Laws


Studies estimate that 72% of the municipal solid waste generated in the United States disposed of in landfills is organic (U.S. Composting Council). That means that approximately 177 million tons of trash sent to landfills in the United States (the U.S. EPA estimates that more than 254 million tons of trash is generated annually) could be diverted, and either processed naturally to create nutrient rich compost, or digested anaerobically to produce energy. Landfills are the number one source of methane emission in the United States, a greenhouse gas that is 23% more efficient at retaining heat than oxygen and a potent contributor to global warming. Decreasing landfill space coupled with the increasing importance of environmental sustainability for federal, tribal, state, and local leaders is resulting new laws regulating the disposal of organic waste across the country.

National Trends.

In the last three years, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and cities like Boulder, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco have all passed mandatory organic waste recycling programs to reduce the amount of organic waste going to landfills. These laws range from complete bans of organic waste in landfills, to penalties for disposing of organic waste in the the trash, to tax financial incentives for businesses to invest in composting infrastructure. More than 90 U.S. cities now offer curbside composting pick-up, and the numbers of city, county, and state governments enacting organic waste recycling laws continue to grow. 

The federal government is following suit. In 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Nation’s first ever initiative to reduce and recycle food waste by 50% over the next 15 years. As part of this initiative, federal agencies will work with local communities, state, tribal, and local governments to develop food waste reduction programs and assist in developing organic waste recycling programs. Encouraging organic waste composting on consumer, commercial, and municipal scales is a critical part of this initiative. 

This federal policy may soon be codified into law. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree recently introduced the Food Recovery Act into Congress, which would be the first bill to regulate and reduce organic waste going to landfills. The bill contains more than two-dozen provisions to encourage the reduction of food and other organic waste at the consumer level, in schools, farms, groceries, and other commercial or government settings, and to reduce the amount of food waste going to landfills by providing grants for composting and aerobic digestion projects, as well as other monetary incentives limited to states that prevent organic waste from going to landfills (H.R. 4184, 114th Cong. 2015-16).

Case Study: California AB-1826.

In October of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB-1826 into law. The bill phases in a series of mandatory organic waste recycling requirements for all businesses, multi-family dwelling units, and local jurisdictions, with the goal of reducing the amount of organic waste disposed of in California landfills by at least 50% by 2020 (Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 42649.8 - 42649.87). The first phase of the law came into force on April 1, 2016, which requires all businesses and multi-family residential dwellings generating eight or more cubic yards of organic waste per week to either arrange for municipal composting or anaerobic gestation, or set up the infrastructure to recycle its organic waste on site (Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 42649.81(a)(1); (b)).

The law expands in scope incrementally, and will require any business that generates four or more cubic yards of organic waste to begin recycling it by January 1, 2017; any business generating more than four total cubic yards of commercial solid waste (organic and inorganic combined) per week to begin recycling organic waste by January 1, 2019; and if statewide disposal of organic waste reduced by at least 50% by 2020, all business that generate only two total cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week must begin recycling organic waste (Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 42649.81(a)(1)-(5)). Local jurisdictions are authorized under the law to implement enforcement provisions for businesses that fail to comply with these mandates, and must report all compliance information to the state. (Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 42649.82(e)(1). Enforcement may include a structure for fines and economic penalties (Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 42649.82(f)(1)). This law is similar to those in other states. 

Future Prediction: Stricter Laws and Penalties Requiring Organic Waste Recycling. 

There is a clear national trend towards stricter regulation of municipal solid waste disposal, and specifically towards mandatory organic waste recycling. Although most laws include phased diversion mandates to ease the transition for industry, states are increasingly choosing to enact outright bans of organics in landfills. As governments begin to assess compliance with new legislation, local agencies will likely enact fines and other penalties to encourage businesses to address their waste disposal programs.

Beyond legal mandates, the national legislative trend suggests that there is a strong social movement towards waste awareness. Citizen consumers are demanding more sustainable organic waste management programs of their lawmakers, and will demand the same of business. To reduce abrupt transition costs, avoid potential monetary penalties, take advantage of new grant monies and tax incentives, meet new market demands, and ensure compliance with the law, organizations should audit their waste stream to assess organic waste recycling options sooner than later.

-Jacquelyn Amour Jampolsky, BS, JD, PhD Environmental Studies

 BioCoTech Americas, LLC, is a Denver based company that distributes in-vessel aerobic composting technology. It does not engage or participate in the practice of law in any way. This opinion is for informational purposes only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice to discuss any particular issue or problem with respect to organic waste disposal and compliance with the federal, tribal, state or local laws.