Community-scale composting growing at its own pace

New Portland program may feed regional capacity

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Curbside composting bins for most food scraps are set to arrive at Portland homes by the end of the month. And that, officials say, means the city to the south gets to be a guinea pig for Clark County.

Clark County and the city of Vancouver are adopting a “wait-and-see” approach before starting a home food waste collection program here, Vancouver Environmental Resources Manager Rich McConaghy said.

“We’re not looking at that at this point,” he said. “Really, our focus is looking at the commercial side: hospitals, businesses, schools. We see that really as our first focus.”

Food waste is the county’s largest single contributor to landfills — it made up 16.3 percent of the county’s waste stream in a 2008 study. Food decomposes in landfills, but as it does so it creates a large volume of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, McConaghy said.

Right now, several large commercial ventures, such as Burgerville, and nearly every Clark County school recycle their food waste, he said. And as more facilities are built locally to handle food waste composting, the county will be able to more realistically look at a home collection program as well.

Portland will join other West Coast cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, with well-established curbside food waste collection programs — but that doesn’t mean it has been without controversy there.

All food waste, including vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, baked goods, grains, dairy, eggs, and coffee grounds and filters, will be accepted. But in order to make the program work without raising costs to homeowners, weekly garbage service was cut to biweekly, while the yard debris and food composting can will be collected once a week — a move that drew the ire of many.

“If we did that, it would be an issue,” McConaghy said.

Portland had very specific goals to implement home food waste collection, and Mayor Sam Adams had a large hand in pushing the city council to approve the start of the program, he said.

“I don’t know if we have the same approach with city politicians,” McConaghy said.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt agreed that he’d like to observe Portland’s program in action first. Yet Vancouver shouldn’t lag too far behind, he said. “For me, within reason, it’s an avenue toward sustainability and preservation of our resources that I would like to see the city actively pursue,” he said.

The Clark County Comprehensive Solid Waste Plan, approved by county commissioners and the Vancouver City Council, has no strong language pushing for a home composting program. The county should instead “evaluate residential and commercial food waste collection” and “encourage the private sector to establish additional processing capacity,” the policy reads.

Leavitt said the city’s sustainability plan, which was never formally adopted, also likely addressed solid waste reduction as well.

School scraps

Among the pioneers of food composting in Clark County have been its schools.

Nearly every school district has such a program, in which students sort their lunch remnants into trash, recycling and compost bins.

At Heritage High School, where the program started two years ago, teacher Nancy Keller said they previously filled six to eight dumpsters of trash every week, but now it’s two to four.

“The kids do a pretty good job,” said Keller, who estimates Heritage has about a 71 percent success rate with the right trash ending up in the right canister.

Cost is among the chief reasons the Evergreen School District adopted the program — composting is cheaper than sending trash to a landfill, Resource Conservation Manager Dave Cone said. He didn’t have the savings numbers immediately available, but said, “It’s considerable.”

Also, he said, the program is “a good role model. It’s good for us as educators to be modeling that and showing these opportunities to the kids.”

No facilities

A big reason composting hasn’t taken off in the Portland-Vancouver area until now has been the issue of supply and demand, McConaghy said.

Seattle and other Puget Sound area cities can send their home food waste to processing facilities nearby, he said. So far, the same facilities haven’t been developed in Southwest Washington and Northern Oregon.

That means food waste has to be trucked to locations including Pacific Region Compost in Corvallis, Ore., Cedar Grove in the Puget Sound area and Silver Grove just south of Olympia.

That raises costs, McConaghy said.

“It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg — until you have a place to take it, you can’t do it,” he said. “We admire (Portland) for stepping out front and getting the markets going.”

At least one project, Columbia Biogas in Northeast Portland, is set to open in the next year or so.

Metro, Oregon’s regional government that handles solid waste transfers for the area, also just lifted a 10,000-ton cap on the food waste it would take from Clark County, McConaghy said.

That should allow the government to start working with more private companies to start commercial programs.

Home composting may just be a matter of time and patience.

“It would be good for us,” McConaghy said. “Maybe not this year, but a couple years down the road.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or http://facebook.com/reporterdamewood or http://twitter.com/col_cityhall or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.