One size does not fit all: A compost procurement policy for all cities

A new model compost procurement policy developed by the Environmental Law Institute and NRDC could help municipalities around the country in their efforts to divert food scraps and other organic materials from their landfills and incinerators and, in so doing, realize myriad economic and environmental benefits.

The model policy, which is designed to be an off-the-shelf, easily adaptable tool, requires municipalities to purchase finished compost products when appropriate for use in public projects such as landscaping, construction, and stormwater management — provided it is not cost-prohibitive to acquire. The model policy also encourages quasi-governmental and local private entities to purchase compost, when possible, for use in their projects.

Adopting a compost procurement policy can yield a multitude of economic benefits, including increased compost sales for local suppliers; development of new compost processing businesses, which in turn strengthens and diversifies organic waste recycling infrastructure; and reduced irrigation and fertilizer costs as a result of greater soil nutrient and water retention. In addition, municipal compost policies can foster sustainability through greenhouse gas emissions reductions (by diverting organic materials from landfills, where they emit methane), soil quality improvements (from cycling carbon and nutrients back into soil), erosion prevention, and reduced stormwater runoff.

This template will help local governments understand current best practices and enable them to take an important step toward achieving their waste diversion goals.

To date, closing the organics recycling loop by requiring compost purchases is an underutilized tool in municipal efforts to manage organic waste sustainably and cost-effectively. By providing model language, the new resource is intended to facilitate the widespread adoption of compost procurement policies by truncating the time and effort that would be required if a municipality had to start from scratch. The model is based on extensive research on best practices from around the country, including locations such as King County, WA; Sacramento, CA; Berkeley, CA; and Denver, CO.

Because no two cities are alike, the model can be adapted as needed to meet individual cities’ needs. A companion, annotated version of the policy includes commentaries that provide background information on key provisions, as well as alternative approaches, in an effort to guide local policymakers who want to tailor the policy to their own situations. For example, the model policy calls for the use of compost unless it would be “cost-prohibitive” — defined as the cost of compost exceeding the cost of an alternative product by more than 10 percent. The annotated version of the model policy notes that municipalities can opt for a higher or lower percentage in defining “cost-prohibitive” and also provides information about cities that have adopted differing standards.

“Small and mid-sized cities, in particular, can especially benefit from model policies like these,” said Sharon Smith, Special Projects Manager for Nashville’s Metro Waste Services, Waste Services Division. “This template will help local governments understand current best practices and enable them to take an important step toward achieving their waste diversion goals.”

The model policy was developed as part of the Nashville Food Waste Initiative, which engages local partners in preventing food waste, rescuing surplus food, and recycling what’s left to build healthy soil. The Nashville Food Waste Initiative is part of NRDC’s Food Matters Regional Initiative, which addresses municipal food waste while leveraging regional synergies. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC’s Expert Blog. It was co-authored with Linda Breggin, Akielly Hu, and Jessica Sugarman, Environmental Law Institute.

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