April Dialogue Summary Report

On April 3rd, 30 members of the Composting Collaborative gathered before BioCycle East Coast 17 to give project updates, as well as engage in two robust panel presentations and talks from a host of speakers.

Starting the afternoon off, Senior Director for Sustainable Materials at GreenBlue, James Ewell, walked through the vision that BioCycle, the US Composting Council, and GreenBlue share for the year ahead. Underscoring the founding partners’ desire to grow the Collaborative organically, Ewell emphasized new resources being developed for Collaborative members to engage like the LinkedIn group and a series of monthly webinars to be launched in June. After a quick brainstorming session on topics Collaborative members want included in future webinars, attention turned towards a series of flash talks.

Flash Talks

BioCycle Editor Nora Goldstein dove into the first of several flash talks with an update on BioCycle’s Snapshot Survey that is quantifying the number, type, size, and processing levels of composting facilities, among other data, from 27 reporting states. Goldstein stressed that while there is real value in examining the data available from states, there are challenges and is room to grow. Differences in permitting requirements, for one, lead states like Texas and Massachusetts to exclude yard waste operations, which likely means significant underestimates of organics processing in these states.  

 Carol Jones discusses the effects of landfill bans on the creation and expansion of composting facilities. 

Carol Jones discusses the effects of landfill bans on the creation and expansion of composting facilities. 

Carol Jones, Visiting Scholar with the Environmental Law Institute, gave a synopsis of her recent research investigating various impacts of landfill bans as implemented in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In comparing the demographics and rurality of each state, Jones parses out how similar but differing bans have targeted generators and pursued distance requirements for mandatory participation in organics diversion.

In the next flash talk, Washington, D.C. Office of Waste Diversion Program Analyst Evann Sawyers-Rousegave an exciting announcement about the District’s new food waste drop-off program beginning at farmers markets throughout the District this Spring. With at least one drop-off point in each ward, the District will be focusing on year-round markets to provide the most consistent access for residents. Assistant Commissioner for New York’s Department of Sanitation Bridget Anderson explained that New York faces similar challenges with it’s myriad of drop-off points and has worked with public libraries as one way to continue access during colder months.

GreenBlue Project Associate Charlotte Dreizen shared that the Waste Characterization Protocol developed over the last six months through assessments of five different venues has been refined to reflect suggestions made during the January Dialogue. Several state and municipal attendees indicated that they’d like to contribute to the waste characterization data standardization effort. Collaborative members were reminded that further comments and suggestions are welcome and can be sent to Charlotte.Dreizen@greenblue.org. Several Collaborative members also indicated that they have tentatively scheduled waste characterizations during 2017 that they would like to work together to align data collection methods, as well.

Rounding out the flash talks, ReFED Program Manager Nate Clark outlined the trajectory of ReFED’s next projects including all of the momentum surrounding date label standardization. Moreover, Clark highlighted some of the innovative food waste-focused projects emerging from OpenIDEO including the “Mighty Muffin,” a solution from a Boston bakery that dehydrates food trimmings, transforming them into nutrient-dense flour to bake tasty muffins served to underprivileged school children.


Panel Discussions:

Stimulating Compost Use in Cities: Closing the Loop

 Rendering of an example of compost application in a multi-family building. Image Credit: Matt de la Houssaye

Rendering of an example of compost application in a multi-family building. Image Credit: Matt de la Houssaye

The first panel of the Dialogue kicked-off with Bridget Anderson, Assistant Commissioner for New York’s Department of Sanitation, exploring the challenges and opportunities in organics collection, processing, and end use in New York City. Anderson set the stage by discussing the strong City Council support for the goal of expanding the organics collection program from just over 1 million residents to 3 million by the end of 2017.

But, the bulk of Anderson’s presentation was centered on how to best use compost to nourish urban soils. A neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach of applying compost to trees has been one successful method and leverages scores of committed volunteers. The ultra-compacted soils surrounding more than 1 million urban trees are the primary beneficial use of the city’s compost, protecting the substantial investment the city has made in greening its urban landscape. With soil so compacted that it acts as a hardscape just like the surrounding pavement, there is a clear need. But, it’s a challenge to scale volunteer efforts in a piecemeal manner.

Anderson explained that the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation offers opportunities for larger-scale uses of compost for a variety of applications. Similarly, the city’s efforts to sell compost in bulk to large landscape companies is a promising opportunity for returning New York’s nutrients nutrients to its soils, but only at the city-regulated rate of $10 per cubic yard.


 Rendering of an example of compost application in a multi-family building. Image Credit: Matt de la Houssaye

Rendering of an example of compost application in a multi-family building. Image Credit: Matt de la Houssaye

Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery Director Matt de la Houssaye continued on the theme of exploring the connection between growing access to composting and increasing compost application in cities. First, de la Houssaye described the initial outreach to property management groups and multi-family buildings well-suited to divert organics in residential units that Global Green has facilitated in Santa Monica, CA. He draws comparisons from Toronto and Seattle’s “Eco-Ambassador” programs and how they have found Eco-Ambassadors in their participating buildings as critical evangelists to help bring along superintendents and facilities staff. With early success in a few buildings, de la Houssaye divulged that Global Green will be expanding the program and hosting workshops in Northern and Southern California throughout 2017, as well as conducting outreach to individual property managers in Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties.

Elaborating on new frontiers for 2017, de la Houssaye explained that turning to the issue of applying compost to urban soils will require stronger coordination with cities. In particular, de la Houssaye made note of the fact that most city climate action plans currently don’t include compost use as a strategy for any one of the many benefits compost provides like erosion prevention, better soil infiltration, less runoff, and carbon sequestration. In much the same way, he demonstrated that the construction and the building sector at large underuse compost despite compost lending an important role in LEED and SITES Certification programs. To evaluate scenarios for increased compost use in cities, de la Houssaye discussed that Global Green would like to work with 3 cities and sign formal MOUs to determine best uses from engineering and administrative perspectives. Stay tuned for more details on an early June webinar examining their Eco-Ambassador program, as well as similar city-led initiatives.


Charlotte Dreizen of GreenBlue began where de la Houssaye left off concerning the opportunity for urban compost use catalyzed by LEED and SITES, as well as the Living Building Challenge. Starting with the most soil-oriented certification, SITES, Dreizen outlined the numerous ways that the Sustainable SITES Initiative incentivizes compost use. Starting with the construction phase, there are prerequisites for “treating and communicating a soil management plan” and using compost blankets, berms or socks for erosion and sediment control to “control and retain construction pollutants”. Among the countless optional credits that can be achieved through compost use include improving the water-retention capacity of soil by increasing organic matter through compost use or “support[ing] sustainability in plant production” by using peat-free compost amendments and recycling organic matter like grass or landscape trimmings. In terms of organics processing, Dreizen also discussed how SITES innovatively gives 3 credits for all yard waste being composted within 50 miles of the site, 4 credits for processing all yard waste on-site, and 5 credits for processing yard waste and food waste on-site.


 Pre-processing systems in the basement of the Bullitt Center that enable their six-story composting waste treatment system.

Pre-processing systems in the basement of the Bullitt Center that enable their six-story composting waste treatment system.

Likewise, Dreizen illustrated that SITES and LEED both also give credits for sourcing a certain percentage of materials within a given radius, which compost likely qualifies for given that it’s rarely transported from long distances. Apart from regional sourcing credits, Dreizen critiqued LEED for largely limiting incentives for compost use to its capacity for reducing irrigation demand and a construction pollutants management plan. In contrast, Dreizen showed that despite the Living Building Challenge’s lack of specific credits encouraging compost use, the application of compost is practically mandatory to eliminate the need of irrigation due to the Net Zero Water requirement and also facilitate the requirement of urban agriculture on-site. Dreizen explained that the standard’s most unique compost attribute is the near universal use of compost toilets where leachate is removed on a monthly basis, but biosolids only need to be removed every year or two depending on population density of the residential or commercial space.


Kim Charick, Co-Lead for EPA Region 4’s Food Recovery Challenge, then plunged into the state of composting in Atlanta and shared an update on the ongoing work of the Metro-Atlanta Community Based Composting Collaborative. The Metro-Atlanta Community group aims to increase production of and access to high quality compost throughout the city and larger region and began in 2016 with a stakeholder group of 50 individuals. Reconvening last month on March 29th, 9 recommendations were prioritized and a corresponding white paper is slated to be released at the end of April.

Charick discusses that Atlanta is uniquely poised to dramatically increase community-level composting out of necessity, since the nearest commercial composting facility is located more than 130 miles away. Similarly, Charick points out that Georgia’s strict requirements for Class 2 composting facilities limit the acceptance of food waste generated off-site. Charick notes that clearly, if composters need to come up with 75% of food waste processed on-site, they wouldn’t be able to scale large enough to serve a community with residential or commercial routes. After several meetings with Georgia’s Environmental Protection Department, Charick discussed that the Metro-Atlanta Community Based Composting Collaborative’s proposal to remove the 25% off-site limitation was accepted and is now under review with the Department of Natural Resources. In the meantime, Charick explained that through the 380 community gardens and 90 urban farms, there is plenty of opportunity to ramp-up decentralized processing, as well as application of compost back into urban soils.


Accelerating the Decomposition Process: Evaluating the Claims

The Collaborative’s second panel centered on the countless new technologies entering the marketplace that make bold claims to process or compost food waste in a matter of days. These pre-treatment and pre-processing technologies often make vague claims about their end product or assertively claim that they are valuable soil amendments that support plant growth.

Nora Goldstein laid out a few key questions to guide the conversation among panelists Brenda Platt, Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), Linda Bilsens, Composting for Community Program Manager of ILSR, and Bob Rynk, Associate Professor at SUNY Cobleskill. To address Goldstein’s first questions— “Can you speed up composting? And should you?”, Bilsens gave a brief overview of the foundations of composting science and both the chemical and physical processes that take place to create stable and mature composts.

Rynk then connected the dots between the principles Bilsens presented and the accelerated “composting systems” like the residential-scale Whirlpool Zera Food Recycler and the Australian technology Clo’Ey, as well as the commercial-scale XACT In-Vessel System and FOR Solutions. Rynk threw questions out to the Collaborative members about where exactly the line is between mature and not mature or stable and unstable compost. If dehydrated material is stable only until it is made moist again, is it really stable? If organic matter is heat-treated to an extent that it kills microbial activity, would it improve soil health?

Engaging discussion around the topic came to similar conclusions and attendees largely agreed that while pre-treatment and pre-processing technologies may provide valuable weight and volume reduction to food waste, they most likely need to be directed to a compost facility for curing before being land-applied. Despite STA testing being done by several of the pre-processing technologies, little data has been made public on the findings and concerns over how the end-product affects plant growth. Goldstein noted that Loyola Marymount University Professor Joe Rasmussen has conducted studies with students on the pH levels, fungal growth, and CO2 and NH3 levels to determine maturity of similar new technologies being considered for use on campus. Similar efforts could help elucidate the characteristics of the end product these new technologies are producing and help verify claims.

Bridget Anderson echoed the sentiment that many city and state officials are facing questions from developers, architects, and superintendents on whether or not specific pre-treatment and pre-processing technologies are worth installing and which are more effective than others. In light of New York’s Food Waste Fair scheduled for July 25th, Anderson called on the Collaborative to help the city in determining how best to frame pre-processing technologies as a useful, but intermediary processing step in transforming food waste to a finished, cured compost.

Charlotte Dreizen