In Our View: Curbside Compost?

Portland is trying new collection program; schools here already recycle food scraps

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Is Clark County ready for a curbside food scraps compost collection program? No. Will it ever be ready? Maybe, depending on how a new program in Portland works. Once again, folks on this side of the Columbia River enjoy the benefit of using Portlanders as our figurative guinea pigs.

Sometimes as we observe our lab rats, the answer is, “No, not here.” For example, we’ve been watching Oregon’s silly ban on self-serve gasoline for many years now, and there’s no way that’s going to kick in over here. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in America except New Jersey.

Curbside food composting, though, might be another story. As Andrea Damewood reported in the print edition of Monday’s Columbian, Portland city officials have approved a curbside collection program that brings significant changes. All food waste (plus coffee grounds and filters) is to be tossed into yard debris carts. Garbage collection has been changed from weekly to biweekly, and food scraps and yard debris will be collected weekly. (Here, it’s the opposite for most residents: weekly garbage collection and biweekly yard debris pickups).

In Damewood’s story, Clark County Environmental Resources Manager Rich McConaghy said: “We’re not looking at that at this point. Really, our focus is looking at the commercial side: hospitals, businesses, schools. We see that really as our first focus.”

And that’s what might surprise many people who oppose food-composting collection programs: It’s already happening in Clark County in most schools and many local businesses.

The first advantage is financial. Food waste is 16 percent of the county’s waste stream, and recycled food compost in other cities is sold as fertilizer ($20 per cubic yard in some places). At Heritage High School, they’re filling two to four trash dumpsters a week; before food composting, it was six to eight.

The second motivation is environmental. Food waste is the largest contributor to landfills, and as it slowly decomposes, large amounts of methane gas (a potent greenhouse gas) are produced.

These reasons have inspired curbside food scraps composting programs not only in Portland, but in Salem, Seattle and San Francisco. Those cities, however, possess something that’s yet to emerge in Clark County: political willpower for food compost collecting. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt says he’d like to see some kind of program in the future, but for now he’s content to see how it works in Portland. McConaghy said not now, but perhaps as soon as in a couple of years.

Legitimate concerns remain in Portland. Many residents worry that collecting garbage only biweekly will allow more odors to develop and invite varmints. But proponents of curbside composting respond that, by dumping food scraps into the yard debris cart for weekly pickup, there is less chance for stinky invitations to varmints.

Another worry is that the recycling program won’t pay for itself. That really cannot be determined until market conditions emerge, which won’t happen until food scrap processors choose to move into the area and the compost fertilizer becomes more readily available for customers.

So, sit back and watch. Watch Portland, and watch our kids compost food scraps in schools. If it all succeeds, and if Portland’s questions are answered in the positive, Clark County residents should be open-minded about curbside compost collection.