October 3rd, 2011 | News | Posted In: Environment

Curbside Composting Comes to Portland

All your dirty questions answered

compost

After testing it for a year and a half with 2,000 Portland households, the City of Portland's curbside composting program starts October 31st. 

The program for single-family households and apartments buildings with less than four units will allow people to separate food waste from the rest of their garbage.  

Judging from the 100 calls per day that the curbside composting hotline is averaging, Portlanders are confused, excited, frustrated, and nervous about food scrap collection. So, to help dry your sweaty palms, WW spoke with Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability:

Q: Your phones are ringing of the hook. What are people most confused by?

A: Well, to start with, we want people to compost all of their food, and we're talking everything: meat, bones, yogurt, cheese, bread, etc. This confuses people—especially people who have been composting in their back yards—because they've been trained not to include these items in their compost piles. Contrary to popular belief, it's possible to compost every type of food—we just don't recommend doing it at home because of the risk of harmful pathogens. Meat, dairy, and bread products actually compost very quickly, but it needs to be done at a commercial compost facility that's geared up to handle these materials and treat them at the right temperature. These facilities are regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality, so there are no issues with getting these materials handled properly.    

Q:  Okay, so what about the angry callers? What's the biggest concern about the new program?

A:  The switch to every-other-week garbage collection. Starting on October 31, garbage will no longer be picked up on a weekly basis. Instead, food scraps will be collected weekly, and garbage will be picked up every other week. We did this in order to save money for individual customers and the city in general, but we also found that customers in the pilot were generating 30 percent less garbage every month, so trash won't need to be collected as frequently as before.  But when people first hear about this change, there's the immediate reaction of, "Well now I'm going to have to get a bigger garbage can and pay more for all of this." But in the pilot, only 7 percent of customers moved up to a larger trash can size. If you learn to fully utilize the blue cart for recycling and the green cart for composting, there won't be a problem. But if you keep doing things the same way, you might have to get a bigger can. People in the pilot really got behind the changes and fixed their waste habits. By composting food, you produce less waste. It's that simple. But, yeah, if you're still set on using the 60- or 90-gallon garbage roll carts you'll have to pay a monthly fee of $3.50. Customers who have the big carts can switch down to a smaller size for no fee.  

Q: "Ewww, food is gross. I hate touching food." Does that sound familiar?

A:  Oh yeah. There's the "ick factor." This is a common complaint, unfortunately. What people don't realize is that they're touching food all the time whether it's pre-meal preparation or post-meal clean-up. But now that we're asking people to compost, they're telling us that it's too gross to handle. [Sigh]. We just encourage them to line their pail with newspaper. We also encourage them to get over it. [Residents will receive a kitchen pail from the city for collecting food scraps, along with instructions and tips for maintaining the green roll cart.] 

Q:  So where is all the food being taken and how much is the city making off all this?

A:  The city isn't making any money on this. We don't own facilities or handle any of the material that's coming in. Private haulers pick up the compost and deliver it to transfer stations. From there, it's shipped by the truckload out to composting facilities. Your food ends up at either Pacific Region Compost in Benton County which is owned by Allied Waste Services, or Nature's Needs located in Washington County, and they're owned by Recology. Our garbage goes all the way out to Gilliam County in central Oregon, so the composting facilities are a lot closer in comparison. 

Q:  How do you know this is going to work in Portland?

A:  Our pilot was extremely successful, and we ran four routes in four different neighborhoods throughout the city [NE, SW, outer SE, inner SE]. We received a lot of complaints from people in the pilot at first, but then they realized that this new system really did meet their needs. It's going to work the same way as we move city-wide, and we're already seeing that first stage with all the phone calls we're getting now. There are 90 other cities in the nation that have curbside composting. San Francisco has been operating smoothly for ten years, and Seattle has had theirs for three. It's going to be a great addition to Portland. This material makes a valuable soil amendment, so why throw it away? We're doing a great thing for the environment here.

Q:  What's the hotline number?

A:  503-823-7202. We're all staffed up to answer a high volume of calls. We know this is a big change, and we want to do everything we can to help.

 
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