Commercial composting programs are growing in cities across North America. More than 30 states in the U.S. are now equipped with composting facilities, according to a 2014 survey conducted by Biocycle. If that number doesn't sound too impressive, consider that in 2009 less than 10 states had composting facilities that handled food waste and other compostable materials.
That's an important improvement when it comes serving the needs of the robust restaurant sector of a city like Seattle or Portland. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 14.5 percent of the municipal solid waste sent to landfills from both commercial and residential sources in 2012 was food waste. That works out to 37 million tons that has the potential to be diverted for reuse through composting.
But many cities and, surprisingly, many rural areas still don't have comprehensive composting programs built into their waste management systems. Biocycle estimates that there are almost 5,000 composting services spread throughout the U.S. in semi-urban areas to deep rural communities, but the lion's share don't accept food waste.
The reasons are varied and many: complaints about odors from nearby residents to our own ingrained habits when it comes to compostable materials.
No city may better illustrate this complex challenge than the city of Portland, Oregon, a metropolis with a deeply committed ethos when it comes to green practices. In 2006, the city launched the voluntary Portland Composts! program. By 2012, truckloads of stinky compostable stuff was being trucked to the Recology Natures Needs facility, a half-hour's drive outside of the city limits. The city's curbside composting program was off to a good start, supported by a growing number of do-it-yourself composting endeavors.
But in 2013 the metro program hit a snag. Washington County Board of Commissioners, under pressure from semi-rural residents near the composting facility, voted to end Natures Needs' commercial composting license. Nearby residents said that the smell was too much to put up with, and although an alternative was being explored, county commissioners opted to discontinue the facility's commercial services. The city was forced to change composting facilities.
But odors aren't the only challenge that Oregon Metro's composting system has had to overcome. In 2014, Portland announced a dramatic restriction to its list of eligible materials for its commercial composting program. Restaurants and other businesses could now only compost food scraps. Paper plates, napkins, cardboard and similar materials were overloading the methane digester of the new facility, which wasn't designed to handle the volume of such materials from a metro area like Portland. Although residential customers can continue to compost paper and certain plastic materials, commercial institutions must now separate materials that would otherwise be considered compostable.
But that doesn't mean that composting isn't working quite well in other cities like metro Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where curbside composting is now mandatory.
"Large producers of food waste appear to be complying well with the organics disposal ban," said metro Vancouver's director of solid waste planning, Andrew Marr. The city implemented the ban on food scraps entering the landfill in January of this year. Garbage haulers are responsible for doing a cursory check of the garbage they pick up and issuing fines for those that contain substantial banned substances, like food waste. Marr said the new regulations are working.
"Since enforcement began, [in] only a few vehicle loads each week, less than 1 percent of the loads received are being found to contain excessive food waste. So, the vast majority of loads (and the homes and businesses from which those loads were collected) appear to be diverting much of their organic waste."
The city of Vancouver (which is within the metro Vancouver area) employs a multi-pronged approach to encouraging composting of food scraps. First, it lets the business decide and develop its own "food waste diversion plan," and the city has the right to demand an outline of that plan if it so chooses. Second, a business isn't required to contract with a hauler if it wishes to convert an area on its property to compost food scraps. The city provides tips on how to determine whether on-site composting is a better and more economical choice for the business, as well as a list of haulers to contact.
Marr said that while the transition has been more difficult for some businesses than others, the hauling companies have also worked hard to adapt their service to the particular needs of businesses throughout the metro area.
"Fortunately, most of the companies that provide collection services for organics are quite innovative and can address their clients’ concerns by suggesting special bins, more frequent pickups, and bin cleaning," Marr said.
Like Oregon Metro, metro Vancouver has faced challenges when it has come to the odorous aspect of composting food scraps on a volume basis. Harvest Power, situated toward the south end of metro Vancouver's jurisdiction in the city of Richmond, processes the compostable materials with the help of an anaerobic digester that produces energy for the local power company. It has gone through its own growing pains as a composting facility that handles commercial food waste, and it is conscious that large-scale composting of food substances can, at times, be a stinky business. According to Harvest Power, the smell is due not to the food scraps from residents' kitchens or the volume of such discards, but "the high-calorie commercial food waste from restaurants, grocery stores and food processors" that has more fat and sugar in it than what we generally cook with at home. But rather than doing away with composting commercial food waste, both Harvest Power and metro Vancouver are working to overcome the issue.
"Metro Vancouver is educating residents and businesses that produce food scraps about ways to minimize odors at the source and at the processing facility, such as wrapping food scraps in paper or freezing animal-based food scraps before collection," Marr noted. Harvest Power's conditional operating permit also requires the company to measure emissions and respond to odor complaints, as well as look for constructive ways to improve operations.
"It is important to remember that every locale that has implemented an organics disposal ban has experienced some temporary growing pains as local processors, businesses and service providers become accustomed to new practices, volumes of waste and technologies. Disposal bans have been proven effective in getting more organics out of the garbage and into the composting stream," Marr said.
Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology's San Francisco curbside composting services, said the success of curbside composting programs has long been demonstrated by San Francisco's own program, which began as a voluntary initiative in the late 1990s and was signed into city ordinance in 2009. More than 600 tons of urban compost materials are collected every day and trucked to Recology's Vacaville plant an hour and a half's drive east of San Francisco. There it is turned into soil that is sold to farmers. The end organic product not only keeps food waste out of the landfill, but it's also a highly sought after product by farmers and gardeners, Reed said.
"We can't make nearly enough," said Reed, who added that curbside composting is a win-win in a city like San Francisco, because it not only substantially reduces what goes into the landfill, but also helps ensure good quality soil for agricultural practices that take less water and grow better crops.
Reed said that the tonnage of compost materials picked up by haulers in San Francisco has now surpassed the volume of recyclables picked up in the city.
"Think about that," Reed said. "Composting has surpassed recycling in San Francisco. The only city in North America where that has occurred."
Reed said he wasn't able to answer questions about how Recology addresses odor problems at its Vacaville plant. However, an odor management compliance report filed with Solano County Department of Resource Management in June 2014 indicates that, as in other locations, odor is a regular maintenance issue. No citations were reported during the 2013-2014 reporting period, but investigating and following up on neighbors' phone calls remained an ongoing process. Twenty-two complaints were registered at the plant stemming from its windrow compost system, and were addressed.
Despite the success of the San Francisco and Vancouver commercial curbside composting programs, the concept of composting is still dependent on municipal and county resources. Spokane, Washington, a city of 210,000, provides information on its website detailing how residents can self-haul compost materials like yard debris and "food and food-soiled paper" but doesn't handle "kitchen scraps." Adjacent towns and rural areas in East Washington and Idaho still send their food waste to the landfill.
Reed says that steady, patient education of the community was the key to San Francisco's success in implementing a city-wide composting program. He was adamant that it can work in other communities as well. But he admits that there is "no magic bullet" when it comes to incentivizing communities on this issue.
"There's no one trick to solve a complicated problem," Reed said. But he believes that motivating other cities and rural areas will happen when they "are aware of the benefits" and they realize that they can directly contribute to a healthy environment by managing the way they manage, use and dispose of their own resources at home.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.