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New Food Composting Program Will Change Trash Day In Portland

OPB | Sept. 21, 2011 2:27 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:03 a.m. | Portland, OR

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Starting October 31st, Portland residents will do things differently on trash day. The city is expanding a new food scrap composting program. Portland is the third major city on the West Coast to try this.

Southeast Portlander Rachel Lipsey got first crack at the new system. She lives in a pilot neighborhood for the project.

April Baer / OPB

“I have a lot of coffee grinds and eggshells and stuff for my work,” Lipsey said.

Lipsey helps feed film crews shooting on location in Portland. She sometimes brings home pounds of used coffee grounds, fistfuls of wilted salad greens - all of which used to go into the trash. Now, she scoops them straight into the big green rollcart that used to hold just yard debris.

Lipsey also has the new standard kitchen pail, coming soon to every household. She’s been using it for more than a year.

“My husband’s very good about cleaning this every day or two. It’s just as easy as cleaning off a plate,” she said. “So I’ve got a little bit of pork chops in there, a branch from a bunch of grapes, and paper towels.”

Every day or so, they dump the pail into the big green rollcart. Garbage haulers come for the rollcart once a week. Lipsey says the city program goes far beyond what backyard composting can do.

“There’s so much that we can’t put in there that the city is going to accept. Our pizza boxes, all the meat, bones, cheese,” Lipsey said.

According to Bruce Walker with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, this was the next responsible step to cut down the city’s waystream - that’s contributions to landfills.

“It’s a surprising fact, but thirty percent of both residential and commercial waystream is made up of food scraps,” Walker said.

Compared with some plastics, food breaks down easily. But Walker says he knows this will be an adjustment - even for people who have done their own composting, like Southwest Portlander Don Moore. He lives in another pilot neighborhood for the project. Moore describes his first reaction when he found out he was in the pilot program:

“Mostly annoyed.”

Moore is an IT consultant. He wasn’t thrilled to lose a little kitchen counter space to the food scrap pail. He’s still pressed to remember which can to take out every week, and which is collected every other week.

And Moore says there’s no getting around the smell.

“Yes, it is a toxic soup in the bottom of that. Old corncob and some things that are partially disposed,” Moore said.

At the end of the day, Moore says he sees the value of shrinking Portland’s contribution to landfills. His garbage rates didn’t go up, because he composted enough material to lower his overall trash load. Under the new system, haulers now pick up his trash every other week.

If he’d chosen not to compost, his trash load might have increased. That would have meant higher rates.

“It’s not a bad change, all things considered,” Moore said.

The city’s Bruce Walker says Portland is gearing up to help people with the transition. The city has lined up extra staff around the October 31st date. They’ll field phone questions about what goes in the pail, when the garbage goes out, and ways to keep the bins clean.

Kitchen pails will be sent out starting in mid-October.

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