USDA Organic Regulations: Is Your Business in Compliance?

Christine Uri, Chief Legal and Human Resources Officer at ENGIE Insight

If you are like many businesses, you probably do a decent job of separating your landfill-bound trash from recyclable materials like paper, plastic or aluminum. The sight of recycling bins next to waste bins in both public and private spaces continues to increase. However, one category of waste still presents a big challenge for landfills: materials that can be composted, such as food and other organic waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food, or ‘green waste,’ accounts for approximately 22 percent of the total waste that reaches landfills and incinerators. In other words, almost one-fourth of what is in a landfill is food! So back in September 2015, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal: to cut food waste in half by 2030. Since then, jurisdictions around the nation are responding to this goal by enacting regulations to reduce the amount of food waste that goes to landfills.

Why Are Organic Regulations Growing?

Awareness around organics diversion has continued to evolve, spurring new food waste disposal regulations in several states, cities and municipalities. In some areas, companies must demonstrate that they have planned and implemented an organics diversion program. Failure to do so may result in fines and penalties. While restaurants, grocery stores and hotels are the hardest hit, regulatory impacts can be felt across all industries, even those in which food waste is a small fraction of the overall waste stream.

What Are the Notable Food Waste Regulations?

The most notable food waste disposal regulations forcing businesses are in states like California and Massachusetts and municipalities like Seattle and Austin. In addition to providing consumers and businesses with education and encouragement to promote food waste diversion, these areas are now enforcing regulations through fines for noncompliance.

  • In 2015, Seattle passed an amendment to its municipal code prohibiting residents and businesses from putting food scraps, compostable paper, yard waste and recyclables in their garbage. If more than 10 percent of the contents of a company’s garbage (regardless of overall volume) is food waste, they can be fined $50 per collection.
  • In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) passed an initiative to divert at least 35 percent of all food waste from landfills by 2020. In support of this, it banned the disposal of commercial organic waste by businesses and institutions that dispose of one ton or more of these materials each week, impacting food processors, wholesalers, grocery stores, institutional food service providers, and large restaurants.
  • In Austin, Texas – as of October 1, 2018 – the city mandated that businesses with food permits compost or donate leftover food. Known as the Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO), the guidelines support Austin’s plan to reduce the amount of trash it sends to landfills by 90 percent by 2040. The city will manage compliance and enforcement by performing site visits. Businesses will receive two written notification letters and then a citation if they are still not in compliance with the ordinance. The fines are not to exceed $2,000 per violation.
  • In 2014, California addressed climate pollutants (including methane emissions from organic waste) in SB 1383 by setting a goal to reduce the disposal of organic waste statewide by 75 percent by 2025. California Assembly Bill 1826, a mandatory organics recycling law that went into effect April 2016, mandates that businesses separate organic waste from other waste and either recycle it on site or haul it off site for recycling. This includes food waste, landscape trimmings, non-hazardous wood waste, and compostable paper. The law is being phased in according to the organics waste a business generates:

o    April 1, 2016 – generators of 8 or more cubic yards of organic waste per week
o    January 1, 2017 – generators of 4 or more cubic yards of organic waste per week
o    January 1, 2019 – generators of 4 or more cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week
o    January 1, 2020 – generators of 2 or more cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week if statewide disposal of organic waste is not decreased by half from 2014 levels
So far, there are no specific state fines for customers not participating, but jurisdictions could choose to use fines at their discretion.

  •  On July 19, 2016, New York City established new organics regulations for commercial buildings. The law requires buildings that meet the size and usage specifications below to maintain organics collection services:

o    Food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms
o    Arenas and stadiums with a seating capacity of at least 15,000 people
o    Food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet
o    Food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet
Food scraps and other organic waste make up more than one-third of all commercial waste in New York City. Diverting this material from landfills to use for soil-enhancing compost, or as an energy source in aerobic and anaerobic digesters, is a key component of the City’s goal of sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030.

How Do Organic Regulations Impact Locations?

If you are a business that generates a sizeable amount of food waste in these jurisdictions, you may start receiving ‘notice of noncompliance’ letters. As businesses are learning how to comply with organics regulations, they will generally receive warning letters before fines are issued. Enforcement agencies will likely outline the steps you need to take to comply with the organics regulation in the warning letter. However, receiving a warning letter puts your business on the radar for enforcement agencies. This could make you a target for future waste audits and larger fines.

The Good News

The good news is that according to the EPA, limiting food waste will help the United States address climate change, as 20 percent of total U.S. methane emissions comes from all forms of organic waste in landfills. In addition, diverting nutritious, edible food away from our landfills can help the 42 million Americans that live in food insecure households.

Companies like Caesars Entertainment and Panda Express provide examples of how multi-site companies can implement company-wide waste programs that maintain compliance, realize savings, and divert more from our landfills.

Learn more about waste compliance strategies here.

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