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Lessons from Recycling Policy Can Inform Compost Policy

Posted by Michael Brady | April 8, 2021

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

Washington State House Bill 1543 was signed into law in 2019 by Governor Jay Inslee in an attempt to avert a complete collapse of recycling programs across the state. Prior to 2019, recycling programs in the U.S. were dependent on demand from China, which stopped abruptly. A lack of alternative domestic sources of demand left recyclers stuck with unwanted material, which put them into financial freefall (Chaudhury, 2019).

In contrast, programs for recycling of food and yard waste—typically called compost collection—have continued to spread and grow across the U.S. and in many other parts of the world. The number of U.S. communities with compost collection increased by more than 50% between 2013 and 2017 (Streeter and Platt, 2017). Lenz Enterprises—a leading composter in the Seattle Metro area—recently sought to double the capacity of one of its composting facilities (Cornfield, 2019).

So what explains the different trajectories of general recycling and compost collection programs? Is it simply a difference in demand for compost compared to recycled glass or paper? The answer to this question is not at all clear. While some evidence suggests that compost is broadly used, other evidence suggests demand is not as strong as it could be. Agriculture is a major potential source of demand for compost, but use by farms remains limited. This motivated a study I led, described in a previous blog post, that investigated whether farmers weren’t using compost because its value to crop production is simply less than its cost, or, whether there were other concerns or unknowns, such as plastic contamination, keeping the market from developing. Our analysis suggested that for at least some higher value crops grown in western Washington, the value of compost appears to exceed cost.

Waste Management garbage truck stopped in front of green curbside recyling bin.
Figure 1. Recycling programs predate food and yard waste collection programs in many areas and may provide insights into the design of such programs. Photo: Rusty Clark under CC BY 2.0.

Alternatively, differences in scale may explain the relative success of recycling programs compared to composting programs. Far greater quantities of general recycling material are collected than organic waste. Composting programs have run into trouble when major efforts towards expansion have been considered. For example, New York City put on hold a planned major expansion of organic waste in 2018 (Amiri, 2018).

Thinking ahead to expanded compost collection—which is likely in Washington due to the food waste prevention, rescue, and recovery program that aims to reduce food going to landfills—now is an important time to see whether program design could be improved. In particular, I wondered whether anything could be learned from general recycling programs given that they been around much longer. This was the idea behind a study I led last year that was motivated by some of the early signs of growing pains in composting programs. Recycling programs were adopted widely in the 1990s, so there are now more than two decades of academic research evaluating what works and what doesn’t. After a review of the literature evaluating recycling programs, I identified four key findings:

  1. Recycling programs can, and should, consist of more than just curbside collection.

    Flow chart showing waste flow through landfill and recycling processes, and points of intervention.
    Figure 2. Diagram of the flow of material as a consumer product with green triangles showing policy points for policy intervention with example policies.

    Curbside recycling programs are so common it can be difficult to imagine alternative approaches for separating recyclables from waste. However, intervention can occur anywhere from consumer product design to separation at the landfill (Figure 2). Recycling studies found curbside programs to be relatively high cost per unit diverted and urged a greater focus at the beginning and ends of the waste stream. Some authors argue that the only economically sustainable path forward is to depart completely from curbside collection and to instead focus on centralized sorting after all waste is collected. The tradeoff is that less material may ultimately be recycled with this approach. However, that could depend on how waste disposal is priced, which brings us to the next idea.

  2. Financial carrots and sticks should be targeted toward industry rather than households.Increasing the share of materials that are recycled may be accomplished by making waste disposal more expensive or by making recycling cheaper and easier. Waste and recycling programs have developed many ways to impose these financial carrots and sticks. Households may pay per bag, or there can be variable prices for different container sizes. In either case, making recycling free allows households to lower these waste fees.Many studies have compared programs that used different combinations of taxes, prices, subsidies, and penalties for waste and recycling to see if a particular approach tended to work best. The general conclusion was that financial incentives targeted towards households had little effect on outcomes. People lead very busy lives, and most just don’t put that much effort into lowering what they pay to throw out garbage. Some people really care about recycling, so they put a great deal of effort into it even without a financial incentive. Rather than focusing on households, these studies suggested focusing on fees and subsidies to waste management and recycling companies. Even small changes in fees or subsidies will affect the bottom line of a company that either produces or disposes of waste, so they will be much more responsive.
  3. It is critical to think about the very beginning of waste generation with materials standards for consumer products and prepaid disposal fees.If we know that certain products could either be recycled or become waste, why not factor those costs into products from the very beginning? This is the logic behind two policies. Materials standards restrict the types of packaging companies are allowed to use when making consumer products. At the extreme, this includes complete bans on products that are deemed to cause enormous harm, such as plastic shopping bags. For organics, this could mean focusing on eliminating problematic contaminants at the point of production. The other policy is the advanced disposal fee. This is a charge to the manufacturer that is collected to pay for the eventual disposal (or recycling, or composting) in advance. If the cost of recycling exceeds the value of the recycled material, then this fee can bridge the gap to act like a subsidy to use more recycled material.
  4. Recycling fewer things may be necessary to keep programs financially viable.A difficult pill to swallow for recycling advocates is the recommendation to simply recycle less by focusing on only those materials for which there is adequate demand. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse in Chinese demand for our recyclable materials, many recycling programs were left with the difficult decision of reducing what they accept or stopping recycling all together (Rosengren et al., 2019). In some cases, it comes down to the amount of energy in the public and private sectors for innovating to develop new technologies and markets to build up demand for recycled materials.


While there are fundamental differences between traditional recycling and compost collection programs, enough similarities exist to justify considering whether lessons learned from recycling can make compost collection programs more robust and resilient. It is my opinion that the most important lesson from recycling is to not solely rely on curbside collection. Better design starts with developing a complementary set of interventions at multiple points on the waste stream.

For more detail on this work, see the project summary (8 pages; Brady, 2019a) or the in-depth technical report (23 pages; Brady, 2019b).


One thought on "Lessons from Recycling Policy Can Inform Compost Policy"

  1. Paula A Thornton says:

    1. You mention nothing of the viability of waste to energy plants such as we have in Spokane.
    2. What’s the point of increasing recyclables with free recycling if there are no markets?
    3. Where’s the discussion of finding new ways to use recyclables, even if an annual competition among school children?
    4. Why does everyone want to ban bags? Have you ever considered how many low income people (especially seniors) rely on those bags for their other garbage?
    5. Where’s the economics of garbage? That’s where the real answers lie. Apply economic tests to where the highest value lies for each commodity: reduce, reuse, recycle.

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