With pioneering food scraps collection programs in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, the West Coast has led the way in capturing food waste from businesses and residents for productive uses. Well over 100,000 tons per year of commercial food scraps from these and other West Coast cities are being collected from thousands of businesses and processed into compost. Despite this success, most food scraps — around 95 percent nationally — continue to be disposed.

A critical limiting factor in the establishment of food scraps recovery programs is the amount and location of permitted processing capacity. Specific hurdles include siting, permitting or permit revisions, and incentives and costs associated with adding material types (especially food scraps) to an existing yard trimmings processing facility.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) has identified food scraps as the largest material type, by weight, in California's disposed waste. In 2003, nearly six million tons of food scraps were disposed in California, according to CIWMB estimates.

Nationally, as of 2000, there were nearly 4,000 compost facilities nationwide that processed yard trimmings. Yet, composting facilities that can process food scraps are few and far between.

In U.S. EPA Region 9 (which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific islands and more than 140 tribal nations), there are not more than 15 large-scale composting facilities that have permits to accept a broad range of food scraps. California has 12 of these facilities. Meanwhile, there are approximately 120 permitted composting facilities in the state that accept yard trimmings. Hence, in California, only about 10 percent of the permitted composting facilities can accept commercial and residential food waste. Across Region 9, this statistic is likely to be very close to 10 percent as well, and perhaps lower in other parts of the country.

Siting Issues

The siting and permitting of large-scale facilities that can process significant volumes of food waste face considerable hurdles. First off, composting facilities of all stripes often meet strong community opposition, and large-scale composting facilities are that much harder to site. Large composting facilities that handle vegetative and animal-based food scraps are perhaps the hardest to site, with the exception of biosolids processing operations.

Opposition is based on a combination of factors. Depending upon local circumstances, these factors can include:

  • environmental impacts, especially odor, noise, dust and truck traffic, but also water usage;

  • land-use compatibility concerns, especially given the classification of compost facilities as solid waste facilities;

  • encroaching suburbanization;

  • greenbelt protection;

  • concerns that the proposed composting operations are a ruse for the dumping of trash, whether legal or illegal.