FOR “GREENER” cities that run successful recycling programs, food waste is the next frontier. While the benefits of food waste composting, such as methane gas reduction and landfill space savings, are numerous, so are the challenges of creating a program. From finding a permitted facility and coordinating with a hauler to deciding on which biodegradable bags to use, cities encounter a slew of challenges when implementing a food waste composting program. Nevertheless, Seattle and Portland are paving the way for more efficient and cost-effective programs down the road.

Seattle has a goal to divert 60 percent of its waste stream from landfills by 2010, and Portland is aiming for 62 percent recovery by 2005. Because both cities already have extensive traditional recycling and yard waste programs, reaching future diversion projections required the cities to address a new aspect of the waste stream.

Jennifer Erickson, senior planner for Metro, the regional government that handles waste transfer and disposal for the area including Portland, says that when Metro set its diversion goals, the council had to figure out how it was going to meet them. “We were lagging behind in three key areas: commercial recycling, construction and demolition debris, and organics,” she says. “With recycling and construction and demolition, it was just a matter of providing more education and incentive, and getting things where they needed to go. But with food waste, we didn't have anything.”

Metro decided to work with Portland to establish a food waste collection program, which began in early February, targeting the entities that create the most organic waste — grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and schools. Because the commercial sector produces about 70 percent, or 35,000 tons per year, of the city's food waste and compostables, Metro and Portland are leaving the residential side alone for now and encouraging people to compost at their homes instead.

Similarly, Seattle also wanted to increase its recycling rate, so the city decided to develop a commercial food waste collection program set to begin in June and is adding vegetative food waste to its yard waste collection program in March. In Seattle, approximately 100,000 tons of the 450,000 tons of waste generated annually is food waste and other compostables, with 70 percent coming from the commercial side, according to Hans Van Dusen, solid waste contracts manager for Seattle.

Picked Up & No Place to Go

For cities without a composting facility permitted to accept all types of food waste, including meat and dairy, the issue of food waste composting can be moot. “The most important thing we had to resolve before we could enter into any contracts was the composting operation we wanted to deliver the material to had to be permitted to do so,” says Jerry Hardebeck, contract manager for Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM), one of two haulers handling the residential and commercial programs in Seattle. “So that's really where many of these programs have been held up waiting for this approval process.” Washington, for example, has three food composting facilities, and Cedar Grove Composting owns the Maple Valley and Everett locations. While Seattle's food waste will travel less than 30 miles to a Cedar Grove facility, Portland sends its food waste to a Cedar Grove location more than 150 miles away.

Metro has 14 yard debris composting facilities to handle the approximately 80 percent of yard waste the region recycles. When Portland and Metro decided to start a commercial organics program, city officials initially thought offering yard waste facilities financial incentives to upgrade their food waste composting operations made the most sense. However, none of the facilities were interested.

“We offered a lot of money,” Erickson says. “But for a lot of them, that was a big leap.” After two attempts to secure a facility that failed in the final hour due to land use and siting issues and improper procurement methods, Metro chose to take its food waste to Cedar Grove, despite the distance. As an incentive, the composter agreed to open a local facility when Portland begins sending 10,000 tons of food waste annually.

As Metro discovered, the costs and permits involved in upgrading a yard waste facility to handle food waste can override financial incentives. For Cedar Grove, which has been accepting yard waste since 1989, it took about three years to obtain the more than 20 permits required to upgrade its Maple Grove location, Vice President Jerry Bartlett says. It took two years to permit Cedar Grove's new Everett location.

Some of the major points of regulation include air quality, shoreline, wastewater, stormwater, and disease and vectors, he explains. Aside from the environmental and health concerns, regulatory agencies want to ensure that the public does not view composting in a negative light. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, for instance, is considering additional testing for compost that would be more time-consuming for composters, but would hopefully reduce public concerns over human pathogens, eventually making the final product more marketable.

The methods to deal with all of those issues can be expensive. When adding meat and dairy to vegetative food waste, “the fact that you have to enclose the operations is costly,” Bartlett says. When processing food waste, Cedar Grove unloads the material inside a building under negative air, where the material is mixed with higher carbon material. It then is ground up and put under covers, either in another building under negative air or under a Gore Cover that is designed to reduce composting time and odors by shielding the compost pile from outside conditions while allowing carbon dioxide to escape. Stainless steel probes also are inserted into the pile to monitor oxygen and temperature, which can be corrected by aerators, Bartlett says. Cedar Grove also has devised a system to prevent the facility from discharging stormwater. Instead, the water collects in ponds and is used in the summer for irrigation.

The compost Cedar Grove produces goes into a variety of products, including tea, two-way topsoil, premium topsoil, potting soil and a vegetable garden mix, which mostly are marketed under the Cedar Grove name. In addition to Cedar Grove's two locations, the products are sold by the bag at stores in the area, such as Home Depot and Lowe's. Compost products also are sold in bulk by local suppliers, such as nurseries and landscaping stores.

From Here to There

Once a city finds a place to send its food waste, getting it there is another challenge. “[The facility] was the first element we needed to take care of,” WM's Hardebeck says. “The second was to make it affordable.” Seattle's Van Dusen agrees. “One issue is getting good service at a good price,” he says. “You can go to a bid, have private entities try and do it or you can negotiate with the contracted garbage haulers. We chose the latter to get a favorable price and get it going sooner rather than later.”

Because cities handle their solid waste differently, no blueprint exists for food waste hauling. In Seattle, residential garbage collection services are contracted out to WM and Rabanco. Hardebeck says adding vegetative food waste to the current residential yard waste program should be relatively easy. Hardebeck says that it is just a matter of adding more to the container, which means more trips to the transfer facility.

For Seattle's commercial food waste program, which begins in June, the city is working through the logistics of economically transferring waste to Cedar Grove. The city and the haulers must determine whose transfer facilities to use, and which ones will be able to handle the material once it's collected. Hardebeck says the commercial side will take more organization and could be more expensive. “We have to provide service to one or 500 customers.”

While Seattle contracts with two companies, Portland's collections are handled by more than 60 private haulers. The commercial side operates under a free-market system in which businesses choose their own hauler and negotiate their own contract. Metro owns two transfer stations and handles the transfer and disposal. The city has a list of haulers who are willing to offer an organics service, and businesses can switch haulers if theirs doesn't offer one.

From the haulers' perspective, the main challenge to food waste collection is setting up an efficient route and not allowing compostables to sit in containers for too long. But aside from just picking up the trash, haulers also are sitting in on meetings with customers that are interested in the program. Erickson says that haulers are helping to determine what type of equipment is needed and explaining what can be thrown away, which bin to use and how the system will work.

To get programs off the ground, cities are helping to offset some of the initial costs for the haulers. In King County, Wash., which operates its waste program separately from Seattle's, the cities with pilot programs are paying for the four hours it takes to haul the compostables to Cedar Grove.

“The haulers aren't paying for anything, but they are cooperating with us,” says Beth Humphreys, project manager for the King County Solid Waste Division.

For Seattle's residential program, the city is paying for the added disposal costs at Cedar Grove, which Hardebeck says is unusual in his experience. “The haulers aren't sure if this is going to cost them an arm and a leg,” Erickson says. “But they've said they will figure out how to make this work.”

Details, Details, Details

Once participants have found a facility and worked out hauling contracts, seemingly minor details still can hold up an operation. Customers must be educated about what can go into food waste bins. Contamination by plastic forks and bottles is a major problem facing the industry. With high employee turnover at restaurants, education is not easy.

Then there is the issue of what kind of food waste collection bags to use, and who should pay for them. Cedar Grove, for instance, prefers customers use a specific biodegradable bag that works best in its operations, but they cost approximately 60 cents a piece. Because food waste is heavy, the bags sometimes have to be doubled. Stan Jones, who runs the composting program at the Portland airport (PDX), says he questions whether some vendors would participate if the Port Authority was not supplying the bags.

From the outset, cities cannot promise that food composting offers great financial incentive for anyone. For larger commercial participants that pay a per-ton tip fee, lower fees for organics can pay off if the business is producing enough food waste to significantly reduce its solid waste fees. And Jones notes that, “for recycling to be successful, you have to buy recycled.” PDX is trying to do its part by purchasing compost from Cedar Grove with the airport's label on it for a “spring fling” event.

The cities willing to make the initial investments are expecting to see results. The Portland airport, which has been running a pre-consumer food waste program for almost two years, expects to double the 2 tons per week it had been diverting. The city aims to divert 10,000 tons of food waste per year within the first 18 months, and thinks that 20,000 to 27,000 tons per year is a conservative estimate. Van Dusen says Seattle estimates about 15,000 tons per year can be diverted within the next few years. “We are on the tip of the movement. In another 10 years, this will be common,” Jones says.

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is Waste Age's assistant editor.