It’s been a year since a California law mandating organics recycling went into effect, and initial results show both high landfill diversion rates and strong market growth.
Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), told Resource Recycling that implementation of SB 1383 is “going spectacularly well.”
“I have been really incredibly impressed by the commitment with our local government partners and our private partners to getting to success even when we have hurdles,” she said.
So far, 75% of California jurisdictions (464 of 616 jurisdictions) have reported that they have residential organic collection, Wagoner said, and early reports show decreasing amounts of organics in landfills. A recent CapRadio story noted that many jurisdictions are focused on increasing participation and educating residents.
SB 1383 requires that 20% of still-edible food is diverted and redistributed by 2025. Using a 2014 baseline, that’s about 231,000 tons diverted, she said. In the first part of 2022 about 117,000 tons were diverted, putting the state on track to hit that target early.
“There’s a lot more work to be done. There is infrastructure that needs to get built, jurisdictions that need to expand their collections, but we are making really excellent progress,” Wagoner said.
On the ground results
Neil Edgar, executive director of the California Compost Coalition, said operating composters are in high demand.
“A lot of jurisdictions need their services. Most of them are operating at close to full capacity and many of them are developing additional infrastructure and expanding their operations,” he said. “But like most things related to permitting in California, it’s a tall order. It’s slow.”
“This is an incredible area of growth and a real illustration of how a circular economy works.” –Rachel Wagoner, director of CalRecycle
Edgar said while there are some new composters entering the industry, most of the growth has been among existing operators.
As they wait for processing infrastructure to develop to meet the growing supply, some locales have had challenges finding markets for the larger volume of compost being generated.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it shows growing pains for composters and growing markets for compost use,” said Linda Norris Waldt, deputy director of the U.S. Composting Council.
Another challenge is how long it takes to build out composting infrastructure, Edgar said. It can take between 7 and 10 years to develop a composting facility and collection system from scratch, and many public landfills in Southern California did not start until 2022, he said, despite the law passing in 2016.
“Getting a collection program is the most important part of getting infrastructure built,” he said. “No company is going to invest in building a facility if there are not feedstock contracts in place that will provide a profitable enterprise.”
Jurisdictions are rolling out collections programs on different schedules, he added, “which does not build regional feedstock security.”
Despite the hurdles, Norris Waldt noted that California “is our hottest compost market because of that law.”
Other common challenges across the country are questions about labeling and certification, Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), said.
One source of consumer confusion is the difference between terms like compostable, biodegradable and plant-based. Those are not mutually inclusive or exclusive labels, Yepsen said, and they all have different values when it comes to sustainability.
Looking at plant-based versus compostable, for example, Yepsen said “both of those have value in a sustainability context, and where consumers get confused is when they misattribute those claims and think that the plant-based content indicates how they could dispose of the product.”
That creates contamination at composting facilities, so BPI is focusing on making compostable products easily distinguishable from conventional packaging and products, through labeling, coloration and other markings.
“What we want, ultimately, is for composters all across the country to be able to get the highest value for their compost, to be able to certify their finished compost and sell it for a higher price.” –Alex Truelove, legislation and advocacy manager at BPI
“I think we still have a long way to go, but through our certification program and our policy work and our partnership with groups like the U.S. Composting Council and Closed Loop Partners, a lot of progress has been made around the country to be able to find alignment and agreement,” Yepsen said.
It will take certification, consumer education and policy to “really move the needle,” he said.
Alex Truelove, legislation and advocacy manager at BPI, said third party certification plays a big role because “you do have products out there that claim compostability that don’t actually do the testing or it’s unknown if they do the testing.”
Policy can help set stronger standards than certification programs could, he added, especially as not all producers will certify their products if it’s not required.
“If you require all products that claim to be compostable to follow good labeling guidelines, make sure their products are easily identifiable and make sure that they’re being tested and validated, those are big steps towards distinguishing compostable products from not compostable products and hopefully really reducing some of the contamination risks that we’re seeing,” Truelove said.
Norris Waldt added that she would prefer to see municipalities treating compost as a valuable product and selling it, but as many are new to composting, they’re deciding to give it away at first.
“They’re testing and trying to figure out the market, but that devalues the product for everybody,” she said.
Bifurcated stream feasibility
CalRecycle also recently determined it would not be feasible or efficient to separately collect products that are not acceptable compost feedstocks under the USDA National Organic Program and organic wastes that are acceptable compost feedstocks.
“Technical feasibility isn’t there right now, not to say it won’t be in the future, but right now it truly isn’t feasible,” Wagoner said.
A June 2023 survey of the 34 mixed material composting facilities in the state and a November public workshop with 200 attendees helped form that conclusion.
CalRecycle noted that it is not aware of any jurisdictions in California that provide two separate organic waste collection services, and none of the 24 facilities that responded to the survey said that they did provide such a service.
When asked in the survey if they accept plastic and plastic-containing materials that claim to be compostable, 20 facilities said plastic and plastic-containing materials are always treated as contamination and are screened out. The other four facilities accept plastic bags that claim to be compostable.
As for the feasibility of processing two separate organic waste streams, 58% said it was not feasible, 25% said it was, and 12% said it was, but that it would be expensive and contamination would still be a concern.
Additionally, 79% of the facilities said adding the capacity to process a separate stream would increase operational costs by more than 20%.
“Respondents stated that keeping waste streams separated to prevent cross contamination would lead to inefficient operating conditions, reduced compost production and increased labor costs,” the analysis stated. “They also stated that facilities would need to double their processing capacity to have two streams.”
As CalRecycle determined it is not feasible to collect products separately, the law bans selling products in California that are labeled “compostable” or “home compostable” unless they are acceptable compost feedstock under the USDA, effective Jan. 1, 2026.
Truelove said BPI doesn’t fully agree with that determination, as nearly 40% of surveyed composters did indicate that bifurcation was feasible. The USDA rules for organic agriculture that precipitated the determination were also established nearly 30 years ago, before compostable products were “really on the scene,” he added, so they were likely not part of the initial decision.
“What we want, ultimately, is for composters all across the country to be able to get the highest value for their compost, to be able to certify their finished compost and sell it for a higher price,” he said. “And we know the compost piles that include broken down compostable products can still be extremely high quality and in some cases compostable products can even provide some value, some structure and obviously they help bring along additional food waste that might otherwise go to the landfill.”
BPI submitted a petition to the USDA’s National Organics program for a rule change, to “update some of these rules that I think will improve the situation for everyone,” Truelove said.
How California is pushing the market
Wagoner said she wants to see a California compost market that mirrors the state’s fine wine market: “We should be the best in the world and everyone should be competing to get our compost.”
Part of that is making sure that compost is looked at as a product and “only putting in our compost what is value adding to our product.”
“We should not be putting things that are not only not good for the soil but do not offer anything for the soil,” she said. “We shouldn’t be putting things in our compost just because it technically breaks down. We should be putting it in compost because it truly is good for the soil.”
There’s a growing market for high-grade compost, she added, and demand is outpacing what composters can currently supply. Part of that drive is because the state’s huge agricultural sector is looking to compost to not only enrich the soil, but to reduce the need for pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation,” Wagoner added.
“Our agriculture industry is seeing a real opportunity to solve a host of problems that they have by using better compost and the timing couldn’t be better,” she said. “So let’s build the infrastructure.”
Right now, the state has 206 operating organics processing facilities: 166 composting facilities, 23 biomass facilities and 17 anaerobic digestion facilities.
Another 21 are under construction, and CalRecycle recently announced an additional $130 million in grants for organics infrastructure that will go to 23 more facilities in 15 counties. Those grant-funded projects will be able to take in over 7.7 million tons of food and yard material, Wagoner said.
“There’s a really compelling argument to be patient, but also aggressive in terms of trying to build that world.” –Alex Truelove, legislation and advocacy manager at BPI
“This is an incredible area of growth and a real illustration of how a circular economy works,” she said, adding that “we are absolutely intending for this to be a model for other states or nations.”
More work ahead
Looking to the future, Yepsen said he wants the policy momentum to continue, but to also harmonize.
“You end up with – at first – a patchwork, where the requirements are quite similar but don’t align and maybe have contradicting language in them, and that can be so extremely challenging,” he said. “One of the things we’ll be looking for in terms of a trend is at what point are we able to really kind of smooth that out? Hopefully not dampen the momentum of progress around labeling, but come to a more steady pace where they’re not contradicting each other.”
Truelove said BPI is working hard with several other partners to provide a strong basis for on-product labeling, whether those are stand-alone bills or part of larger legislative packages, such as extended producer responsibility for packaging.
“We are trying to serve as experts and guides in terms of developing really effective versions of those kinds of rules,” he said.
While it might seem odd for BPI to be engaged on topics like definitions of compostable and organic agriculture, Yepsen said it’s part of the institute’s broad take on what it means to be circular.
“For this system to really work it’s not just about selling pounds of resin in our mind, it’s really about creating a value chain that works and works for all parties,” he said.
Norris Waldt said the U.S. Composting Council is also working to make sure that composters and compostable packaging producers are included in extended producer responsibility discussions, even though their share of overall packaging is small at this time.
“We have members who are in packaging and they say if we’re going to pay into a system we want it to benefit the end process,” she said. That could look like getting composting included in needs assessments and directing some of the program funding to decontamination equipment.
Continued forward movement is key, Edgar added, without pausing or rolling back the law.
“To get a realistic sustainable program there has to be some patience and due diligence on enforcement for jurisdiction development of collection programs,” he said. “That will lead to infrastructure.”
Truelove noted that when assessing the state of composting, “it’s worth remembering that we’re a couple decades behind where recycling is in terms of the infrastructure provided, the collection, the processing.”
“There’s a really compelling argument to be patient, but also aggressive in terms of trying to build that world,” he said. “We can do it, we just need to find the will to provide that support and create those systems.”