The Commercial Composting Conundrum in Pennsylvania


Monthly, AgRecycle, will be posting a new blog pertaining to composting topics.  Additionally, and from time to time, we will be posting guest blogs and blogs of a more auxiliary nature.  With the relaunch of the AgRecycle website, we felt the best subject to initiate this section of our website was to talk about what is happening in our region regarding commercial composting.


Conundrum is the most appropriate word I can think of to describe the status of commercial composting within Pennsylvania. As I sit and write this in 2020, it is puzzling to me why the handling of wastes and the handling of recyclable materials and compostables is where it is in this Commonwealth, as we enter the third decade in the twenty-first century, when global health issues impacting this planet are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. While I am calling this a conundrum, this is not one of those interesting puzzles, rather this particular conundrum is one composed of false fronts, and targeted governmental discriminatory practices against small businesses.

I  realize I may be politically unwise and admittedly politically unschooled, for what businesswomen would actually post a blog bringing to light the decisions made by Pennsylvania’s governmental and regulatory policies that make it almost impossible to have a small composting business in this state. This is especially true as these regulatory agencies have the power, at a minimum make my life very difficult, cost me a great deal more money to operate or at the maximum put AgRecycle out of business, However, this is my first blog and I believe strongly that the role composting plays as a beneficial way to manage the organic waste stream as well as its crucial role in preserving our soils and our sky cannot be discussed intelligently unless the reader understands that the potential to make it happen in this state is very limiting. This is not a ranting blog. This is a “just telling you what it is” blog, to address the hundred times a year I am asked why composting is not a mainstream commercial activity in Pennsylvania. I am writing this with a second goal of finding out why the citizenry of this Commonwealth, the legislature, and the governor’s office all think the status of things here is appropriate when it has become very clear that the quality of soils in which crops are grown and the quality of the air we breathe cannot be divorced from impacting the health of our citizens.

In 1989, Act 101, was established which introduced the values of composting and recycling within the Commonwealth. In the past three decades, this Act has not been re-opened or re-examined for its effectiveness or to determine if its original objectives have been effective or achieved. Do you think what we know now about best environment practices remains unchanged from what we did thirty years ago? Are you happy about the level of recycling and composting that is being accomplished in your community or at your workplace? How do you feel about Pennsylvania’s policies when viewed among what is happening elsewhere across the country? Do you believe we are doing our part to address serious environmental issues?

Food scraps, the largest sector of compostable waste, are the number one cause of methane gas in landfills. Methane is exponentially more harmful to the environment than CO2. Real science (yes, in this day when anyone when seems to be able to advance any claims substantiated or not) has proven 40% of all methane escapes prior to it being able to be captured in a landfill. Yet, less than 1% of Pennsylvania’s population has access to residential food scrap collection programs for landfill alternatives. Landfills are anaerobic atmospheres conducive to methane emissions, aerobic composting operations are not. The EPA W.A.R.M. model has proven that over 1000% more methane escapes from food in landfills versus food scraps that are composted. (LANDFILL 0.79 CO2e – COMPOSTING 0.05 CO2e)

Since 1989, the same thirty-year time period since the enactment of Act 101, Pennsylvania has approved the building of more new landfills than any other state. Nationally, in 1990, there were 6326 operating landfills in the U.S. Today there are 1269. A 79% decrease in landfill numbers (with a national population increase of 31%). In the same time period in Pennsylvania, there were 48 operating landfills in 1990. Today there are 73. So while other states closed landfills and blocked the building of new ones, Pennsylvania sanctioned a 52% increase in the number of landfills with a population growth of less than 9% during the same time period.

Pennsylvania has extended grants to the municipal, other public, and non-profit sectors to advance composting since the inception of Act 101. It has granted in excess of $155,000,000.00 to that end for the past thirty years. These monies are directed to be used exclusively for composting. Therefore, with such a substantial amount of funds being directed to this, you would logically think a substantial number of jobs in this area have been created, quality composts would be available in abundance (brown stuff rotting in a pile is not compost) and that volumes sent to landfills have been decreased. It might be surprising to learn that no new job creations related to composting can be verified in the public sector resulting from those grants. Where is all the quality compost that should be available to this citizenry (again, not brown stuff that has been heaped into a pile) for that kind of investment? With that magnitude of investment surely volumes in Pennsylvania landfills have to be decreasing…..not so. During this same time period, Pennsylvania jumped to second in the United States with the highest percentage of waste, per resident, going to landfills.

As a follow-up to the above paragraph, three additional points are very important to realize because these are the ones that interest most people as they have to do with dollars and jobs.

1. Once upon a time when the DEP in Pennsylvania started issuing grants to advance composting, it was realized that every town was not generating enough yard debris and other compostables to merit its own screen, windrow turner, sizable front end loader, etc as this type of equipment has large scale capacity with large scale price tags to match. It was also acknowledged that the private sector composting businesses had expertise in this field that perhaps a random employee plucked from the road crew might not have in composting to produce a quality compost (again, not brown stuff heaped into a pile that has been turned and managed whenever someone gets around to it). As such, the state gave inter-municipal grants and public/private partnership grants to achieve very logical investments toward the advancement of composting. Today and for many years this is no longer the case. Now a community is only allowed to use grant-funded equipment to compost materials generated within its own boundaries. An example of that decision would be as follows. Instead of the state giving one grant to a group of perhaps five communities to acquire one screen at say an approximate cost of $250,000, it is now willing to make five $250,000 grants ($1.25 million dollars) even though this equipment will remain substantially under-utilized. Additionally, if a community has a very small population so is not composting but has a lumber mill or a pallet manufacturer within its boundaries, DEP will not allow those scraps to be composted in a neighboring community if that neighboring community received grant funding for composting equipment to manage the process. What alternatives does that leave the small community to handle materials that are compostable? Is it now landfill-bound? Furthermore, DEP has done away with all public/private grants.

2. Pennsylvania is the only state issuing grant funding for the advancement of composting that specifically excludes all private composting businesses that are not located on a farm. Yes, you read that correctly, the only state. So not only is the state funding mechanism questionable when it comes to advancing the diversion of compostables from landfills for creating quality composts but this state has made a calculated choice to deter job creation in forward-looking fields of sustainability, hinder the development of composts into the marketplace that can revitalize soils and make it almost impossible for a private composting company to exist. In the extremely small number of non-farm related commercial composting operations that DEP has approved (see below), they have imposed financial bonding requirements upon the private sector only, as well as approving some permitting plans only to go back to some operators and make then change operation plans they once approved, at huge expense, when no science-based environmental harm can be proven. Is this selective enforcement? Is it trying to impose financial burdens to get us a few totally out of business? Is it a message saying they only want to deal with landfills? I simply don’t know. In reading all of this, please do not overlook the fact that quality mature composts, when tilled into soils, have been identified as the most significant tool to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and from eroding the ozone layer. Composting is not a fringe hobby, it is among the single most powerful tools to positively impact climate change.

3. Since the inception of Act 101, and the pro-landfill anti composting business position Pennsylvania has embraced, as of the DEP list published in May of 2019, there have only been seven off-farm permits issued to handle the broadest spectrum of compostables in Pennsylvania, WMGR 025 + WMGR 045. AgRecycle has the first one. The other six other holders are a university handling only on-campus materials, two municipalities, a dairy farm and two quarry based composting operations. In a state that generates 5% more yard debris than most, claims agriculture is its number industry, is the fifth-largest food processing state and publishes numbers saying 50 % of what is landfilled is comprised of compostable materials, why aren’t businesses springing up trying to beneficially use these waste materials to make marketable compost products? I believe the answer is because the state has deliberately “stacked the deck” to make it harder here than in any other state, for small businesses to enter this arena.

All that being said, I am not completely naïve when it comes to understanding some other basics. I understand there will always be a need for landfills as somethings cannot be reused, repurposed, recycled or composted. I understand that the waste industry is a Four Billion Dollar industry and that towns do financially benefit when they agree to have a landfill built within their parameters. I do understand that international billion-dollar waste companies also have lobbying power and influence that I can guess at, but probably not fully imagine. I also understand that these global waste giants, too, can make it very difficult for me to continue to do business in Pennsylvania.

What I do not understand is this. Why does almost no one care, particularly our legislature, that Pennsylvania is deliberately hindering the development of a forward-looking business sector that has the potential to create jobs of tomorrow across all skill and educational levels? Composting companies are overwhelmingly local, small businesses that are the most significant entities in making urban agriculture possible. Pennsylvania is the largest importer of trash in the United States and that is going to landfills that are predominantly privately owned in Pennsylvania. Why can’t composting be encouraged to co-exist with landfills here? Why has Pennsylvania decided to pump hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to the public sector only, to supposedly be used exclusively for composting without expecting results or demanding that quality composts are being made or impose any consequences if the equipment is not being used exclusively as the grant conditions stated? If this state wants a mechanism to give communities equipment for other things then just do it, just do not keep the hoax of promoting composting as the false front for doing it.

Yes, the state of composting in Pennsylvania is a conundrum.

I will keep you posted on what may or may not be coming AgRecycle’s way in the way of additional hardships or expenses as a result of this blog. Keep your fingers crossed with me………….