The legal life of compost is far more complex than you might imagine. The Sustainable Economies Law Center began to learn this five years ago when someone came to us for advice about her idea to collect vegetable scraps from restaurants for a fee, compost the material in distributed locations throughout her city, and sell the resulting rich soil to area gardeners. It seemed like a great idea until we discovered how many legal barriers she would have to overcome: compost facility permitting, zoning approval, labeling laws, transport laws, and one insurmountable barrier: the fact that her city prohibits anyone but one large corporate contractor from collecting vegetable scraps from businesses. Since then, similar community-based, small scale compost organizations and enterprises have sought legal support from the Law Center, demonstrating that the practice of community-scale composting is accelerating. We decided that it is time to look closely at the legal issues.
Now, we have a short window of time in which to influence the shape of the compost industry. The State of California, for example, recently adopted ambitious mandate to divert 75% of waste from landfills by 2020, a goal that will be impossible to meet without rapid scaling of composting capacity. That mandate, along with other recent compost legislation, is expected to create as many as 14,000 jobs in the California compost industry. We need to carve out a legally viable space for diverse, small-scale, distributed, community-based compost organizations.
Community composting can act as a powerful lever for economic justice and ecological resilience. Application of compost to range lands has recently been shown to sequester enormous amounts of carbon. Compost creates rich soil, which supports food security and enhances opportunities to grow food in urban areas. If we do not give communities the ability to organize themselves and create their own compost, then we’re missing a critical opportunity for communities to become more self-reliant, grow fresh produce, create good jobs, improve urban air quality, and build rich learning communities around a growing community compost movement.
The Law Center is supporting the community compost movement through:
Local coalition building: We are co-convening a group of community compost groups in California to address local and state policy concerns.
Legal research and policy analysis: We hope to collaborate with community compost organizations to create a thorough policy analysis for a national audience. See our draft policy guide for California below.
Educational resources: Provide legal guides to community composters to assist them in navigating complex legal terrain.
- Policy advocacy: We aim to introduce a bill in California in 2017 to remove a few of the key barriers to community composting. The anticipated legislation would:
(1) Establish a definition of Community Micro-Composting Organization in the California Code,
(2) Require CalRecycle to publish best management practices for small scale composting,
(3) Require that cities and counties include consideration of Community Micro-Composting Organizations in their waste management plans,
(4) Give households and businesses the right to give a small amount of feedstock (compostable material) to Community Micro-Composting Organizations, and
(5) Diversify the allowable feedstocks for farm-based composting to include manure, vegetable scraps, food material, and green material brought from off-site.
- Legal support: We will continue to provide legal advice to California community compost groups through our walk-in legal advice clinics.
Resources and invitation for feedback:
We recently worked with Berkeley Law School's Environmental Law Clinic to produce a brief for policymakers on ways to advocate for community composting.
Click here to read the DRAFT Policy Brief and to provide feedback.
Photos by Brenda Platt, Institute for Local Self Reliance