Co-author with Linda Breggin, Akiilly Hu, and Jessica Sugarman, Environmental Law Institute

A new model of compost procurement policy, developed by the Environmental Law Institute and NRDC, could help communities across the country in their efforts to divert food waste and other organic materials from their landfills and incinerators for myriad economic and environmental benefits.

The model policy, which is designed as a commercially available, easily adaptable tool, requires municipalities to buy ready-made compost products if they are suitable for use in public projects such as landscaping, construction and rainwater management – unless they can be purchased at a cost prohibitive. The model policy also encourages government-affiliated and local private institutions to buy compost for their projects whenever possible.

Adopting a compost procurement policy can bring a variety of economic benefits, including increased compost sales to local suppliers; Development of new compost processing plants, which in turn strengthens and diversifies the infrastructure for recycling organic waste; and reduced irrigation and fertilization costs as a result of greater nutrient and water retention in the soil. In addition, municipal composting policies can promote sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (by diverting organic materials from landfills where they emit methane), improving soil quality (by returning carbon and nutrients to the soil), erosion control and reduced rainwater runoff.

To this day, closing the recycling loop for organic materials by buying compost is an underutilized instrument in the efforts of municipalities to manage organic waste in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. By providing a model language, the new resource aims to facilitate the widespread adoption of compost procurement guidelines by reducing the time and effort that would be required if a community had to start from scratch. The model is based on extensive research of best practices from across the country, including locations such as King County, WA; Sacramento, California; Berkeley, CA; and Denver, CO.

Since no two cities are alike, the model can be adapted to the needs of the individual cities as required. An accompanying, annotated version of the guideline contains comments with background information on the most important provisions as well as alternative approaches to support local decision-makers who wish to adapt the guideline to their own situation. For example, the model policy calls for the use of compost unless it is “costly” – defined as the cost of compost that exceeds the cost of an alternative product by more than 10 percent. The annotated version of the model policy indicates that municipalities can choose a higher or lower percentage when defining “cost prohibitive”, and also provides information on cities that have adopted different standards.

“Small and medium-sized cities in particular can benefit from such model guidelines,” 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 take an important step towards achieving their waste diversion goals.”

The model policy was developed as part of the Nashville Food Waste Initiative, which involves local partners in preventing food waste, saving excess food and recycling the leftovers to create 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.