Taking Back Our Soil: Our Project on Compost Law & Policy

A little-known fact about Sustainable Economies Law Center: We have a project focused on Community Compost Law & Policy. Like many of our projects, it developed in direct response to a need that surfaced repeatedly for our clients and collaborators. Making soil is a legally complex matter, and community-based compost organizations and urban farms have been hitting legal barriers that sometimes make their work impossible.

The fate of a banana peel can illustrate this. Different regulatory frameworks apply when the peel is:

  1. picked up from a restaurant or residence (local waste collection laws);
  2. transported in a vehicle (state and local laws);
  3. dropped at an intermediate location (state transfer laws and local zoning laws);
  4. taken to a composting facility (state compost facility licensing laws, environmental laws, and zoning laws);
  5. rotting (ongoing reporting requirements by the compost facility);
  6. bagged up for sale (testing and labeling laws); and
  7. sold (special sales tax rules sometimes apply).

Those are a lot of legal considerations for a decomposition process that nature has traditionally managed without any guidance whatsoever!

Compost is a hot topic now, mainly because compost can save the earth! Or, at the very least, it can greatly enhance our ability to sequester carbon. Also, many states now have legislated mandates to systematically divert organic waste from landfills. In California, this requires that we scale our composting infrastructure rapidly. One legislative analyst estimated that more than 14,000 jobs could be created by such a mandate.

We have only a short window of time to influence the shape of the nascent compost industry. Will large corporations build massive compost facilities and seek exclusive rights to manage our communities’ green waste? Or can we act now to create a decentralized, community-based composting sector that will create rich soil, fertile local gardens and farms, educational opportunities, and good jobs? Law and policy play a significant role in answering that question, which is why the Law Center has gotten involved.

Over the past two years, volunteers have helped us research compost law, draft policy recommendations, pitch legislative proposals in California, and provide legal advice to community-based compost organizations. Now, we are collaborating with a loose coalition of California-based compost organizations to explore advocacy routes. If we can raise sufficient funds, we’ll likely expand to do this work nationally.

We've also been working with wonderful law students and Berkeley Law School's Environmental Law Clinic to produce a draft brief for policymakers on ways to advocate for community composting. We are currently working to revise and expand this brief. In the meantime, we've inspired law students to draw cartoons about compost law. Here is a bewildered banana peel on its way to a community compost center. True story!


Learn more about our compost work here

Thanks to our Partners and Collaborators: