Out of the landfill, into the garden

2010-05-06T07:00:00Z Out of the landfill, into the gardenBy Bennett Hall, Gazette-Times reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

ADAIR VILLAGE — Allied Waste wants to change the way you think about your garbage — specifically, all that uneaten food you scrape off your plate after dinner.

“The future is about diverting products out of the landfill, and food waste is a great place to start,” said Robin Murbach, the general manager of mid-valley operations for the waste management firm.

That means taking not only veggie scraps but also pizza crusts, chicken bones, eggshells, meat trimmings — even that leftover tuna casserole that’s been lurking in your fridge — and turning it into compost for farms, vineyards and backyard gardens.

Composting that waste not only frees up landfill space, it also cuts down on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But it’s a tricky process, and Allied Waste’s new Pacific Region Compost Facility — about 10 miles north of Corvallis off Highway 99W — is the first site in Oregon licensed to do it.

The company has been converting yard debris into compost for 19 years at its 27-acre property on Camp Adair Road, formerly known as the Process and Recovery Center.

About 2 acres has been set aside for the new operation, which requires special handling to break down the potentially harmful microbes in food waste — and deal with the potentially objectionable aroma that can arise during the process.

After picking out stray bits of plastic, coated paper products and other inorganic matter, workers mix the food waste with ground wood waste and yard debris, creating a loose, porous blend.

The blend is heaped into giant windrows — massive piles roughly 80 feet long, 18 feet wide and 8 feet tall — with ventilated pipes running through the piles to provide plenty of airflow.

The windrows are covered with heavy plastic and left to cook for about 45 days. After that, the compost is uncovered to cure in the open air for another 45 days, then screened and safety-tested before being made available for sale at $12 a yard.

“With our process, we’re getting it to about 150 degrees,” said Brian May, the site supervisor for the facility. “You’re killing all those pathogens you don’t want in your compost.”

Meanwhile, oxygen-loving microbes in the mix are breaking down the food scraps and woody debris into a nutrient-rich compost.

Another byproduct of the decomposition process, however, is less desirable: the stench.

To deal with that, Allied Waste uses pumps to create negative airflow through the windrows. That air is piped into a biofilter — essentially, a big pile of wood chips — which is designed to absorb the stink before the neighbors catch a whiff of rotting food.

“We don’t just want to be the first food composting site in Oregon,” May said. “We want to be the first successful one, and that means no odors.”

Just how successful remains to be seen, but state regulators say they took a long look at Allied’s application before granting a permit last month.

Brian Fuller, a regional solid waste manager for the Department of Environmental Quality, said the facility was required to meet standards for surface water, groundwater and soil contamination, as well as limiting odor emissions.

“We look at the operations plan and we also look at the location of the facility,” Fuller said. “If they’re not doing what they said they were going to do, we can take action to enforce that.”

With a half-dozen or so other waste-processing facilities in the valley poised to apply for food composting permits, Fuller added, the agency will be keeping a close eye on the Allied Waste operation to see what works and what doesn’t — including odor control.

“To say there will never be any odor, I can’t say that will be the case. But we’ll certainly work with them on it,” he said.

Allied began accepting food waste from some commercial customers last fall under a conditional permit. The pilot program includes some Corvallis and Salem restaurants, Oregon State University dining halls and grocery chains such as Safeway, Whole Foods and New Seasons.

Residential customers in Salem and Corvallis have also started recycling potato peels, coffee grounds and other vegetable-based food waste in their yard debris carts.

(In Corvallis, yard debris pickup went from biweekly to weekly, with residential customers paying an average of $1.80 a month extra for the added frequency.)

Starting this summer, Corvallis and Salem residents will be able to add other kinds of food waste — meat, cheese, bread and anything else on their dinner plates — to the mix as well.

But will they do it? Will people who have spent their whole lives thinking of food waste as garbage suddenly stop throwing it in the trash can and begin recycling it?

That depends on the people, said Tim Stuart, the Northwest regional president for Allied Waste.

“We’re not just doing it everywhere,” he said.

More than 90 communities now offer some version of food waste composting, mainly on the West Coast, according to BioCycle magazine.

Stuart thinks Oregonians are ripe to join them.

“We’re going to get the 10 to 15 percent who will do it no matter what because they believe it’s the right thing to do,” Stuart said. “We’re trying to get the other 45 to 50 percent of people who would like to but want us to make it easy for them.”

Portland may be ready to jump on the composting wagon as well. Just this week, Oregon’s largest city launched a pilot curbside pickup program involving 2,000 households that will bring an estimated 60 to 80 tons a month of mixed yard debris and food waste to the Allied Waste composting facility.

Bruce Walker, the city’s solid waste and recycling program manager, said eco-conscious Portlanders are eager to participate, although there were some initial qualms that had to be overcome.

The biggest concern for most people was that putting food waste in yard carts would cause odor problems and attract rats, he said.

“Our response is, ‘Hey, you put it in your garbage now,’” Walker said. “For most people, that’s kind of an ‘aha!’ moment.”

Bronwyn Evans, Allied’s municipal waste manager for Oregon, thinks most of the company’s customers will quickly adjust to the new way of doing things.

“It’s just like 20 or 30 years ago when we started saying, ‘Let’s recycle newspaper,’” Evans said.

“I think in 10 years or less it’s going to be obvious — well, of course you don’t put your food in your trash, just like you don’t put your cans and bottles in the trash.”

Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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