Environment | Local

Still Holding Your Nose? Portland Survives One Year Of Curbside Composting

OPB | Sept. 13, 2012 6 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 13, 2012 11:13 p.m. | Portland

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We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of Portland’s city-wide experiment in curbside composting.

The green bins that used to hold yard waste now mix in banana peels, eggshells, fish heads, chicken bones, and much more. And there’ve been other changes in how Portland handles garbage.


Say what you will about food scrap recycling. It has people thinking about their trash.

“This whole process of moving from being a regular person putting garbage in the garbage. It’s been a long road for me! I had a lot of attitude about composting and recycling in Portland.”

April Baer / OPB

Ann Sola reaches under the sink to grab her brown, city-issued kitchen compost bucket. She’s been living in Portland for 18 years. And for most of that time, she’s been carrying some baggage around local standards for green housekeeping.

“I felt judged. I have all these people in my life who have gardens in their life. And I don’t!”

But these days, she’s finally feeling like part of the Portland ethos.

Her kitchen is spotless, and her little brown bin, lined with a green plastic bag, is filled to the brim with food scraps and more.

“I love flowers. There’s a lot of flowers I’ve clipped, they’re wilted, a banana that didn’t get eaten, some coffee grounds, leftover salad.”

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This chart represents changes in the cans Portland customers use for curbside trash since the city instituted every-other-week garbage collection. It does not reflect monthly collection customers, or those who picked other options.

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She says the program helps her feel she’s doing something relatively easy that’s meaningful to the environment.

Thanks to people like Sola, Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability says the city has eliminated 40 percent of its residential garbage since the program started. That translates into cost savings. Food scraps cost the city 43 percent less per ton to haul away. But the story of the project’s first year is complex.

April Dinsmoore is a stay-at-home mother who lives in a North Portland duplex with her partner and three sons, age 15, 11, and 3. She’s glad the city is doing curbside composting, but she’s not really taking part. 

“I don’t really do the compost. I don’t use the green bin as much as I should. There may be times where at the end of a meal, I’ll throw all my scraps in a bowl and just take it out to the bin.”

That’s the big green bin at the curb. Dinsmoore confesses she doesn’t use the little brown kitchen bin at all.

“The thought of it just creeps me out a little bit! I use my garbage disposal like crazy.”

Dinsmoore says it’s not that she doesn’t want to recycle food scraps. She says she spends a ton of time separating cardboard, paper, and plastic. But the food scraps are just something that falls through the cracks.  Then there’s the question of what’s left in Dinsmoore’s trash. When Portland started curbside composting, it also cut back trash collection to every other week.

“You know, my partners out there every other day to crunch it down there as much as we can to crunch it down as far as possible so he can just get another bag in there. For a family of five, we produce a lot of garbage. I have a toddler — you can only imagine — and two teenagers.”

Dinsmoore is lucky in that her landlord pays her garbage bill. If she absolutely has to put an extra bag out, she doesn’t have to pay more.

According to the city, about 2,500 more households are now paying more to use larger-size 60 or 90-gallon trash cans.  The number of people who dropped down to monthly trash collection rose slightly as well.

Michael Armstrong with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability says the city’s on track to meet its goals for solid waste reduction, thanks in large part to the food scrap changes.

“We have done some initial looking at how often you find food scraps in the green carts. We’re doing some more work, and we’ll have more to say about that in November. That’s the great thing. The program is there for people who want to take advantage of it.”

Here’s where things stand with food scraps after they leave the curbside bins:a  lot of the food scraps move through Metro Central, the waste transfer station run by Metro, the regional government that handles waste management. Recology — the company that composts Portland’s food scraps — is moving forward on adding food waste to its holding facility in Southeast Portland. It recently won some permitting fights with the facility’s neighbors.

Recology’s plant in North Plains is the place where most of the city’s food waste becomes compost. Recology’s Dave Dutra says he’s satisfied with the first year’s work.

“It has been a learning curve for us. We anticipated volumes slightly less than what we received,” he said.

The company has invested a lot of money improving its technology to control odor problems — laying asphalt to unimproved surfaces, installing an intricate blower system.

Operating manager Jon Thomas explains the computer-controlled pipes that regulate airflow on the rectangular plots of yard waste and scraps.

“Each zone has lateral pipes that run through the material. The pipes sit on the ground, the material sits on top of it. The blower acts as a vacuum that pulls air through the material, into the pipes, and then throughout he blower, which goes into the biofilter.” 

The result isn’t something you’d ever confuse with a bouquet of roses, but it also smells better than you might expect from 33 acres of organic matter.

North Plains City Manager Martha DeBry says there were numerous complaints about the facility’s odor last winter, but it’s better managed now than a year ago.

“There are a lot of days you don’t smell it.  I think it’s improved since they made improvements to the blower system. They’ve also, at the request of DEQ, managed the site a little better,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean the odor problem is completely resolved. 

“While it’s vastly improved, we’re still getting a few days that are pretty bad.”

The Recology facility is getting about 900 tons of yard waste and food scraps per week. The food scraps represent a pretty small percentage of the overall load, about a 10 to 1 ratio. The facility has a clockwork schedule for watering and turning the material regularly. Trucks fitted with something like a water gun shoots a 20-foot stream of water into the piles. 

Plastic bags — including the bin liners many Portlanders use—show up in those piles. They don’t break down fast enough to disappear on Recology’s 60-day compost schedule.

In addition to trying to deal with the odor issue, Recology has to find a market for all the compost. Dutra says Recology is one of several composters running a surplus since the recession.

“We’ve been very successful meriting markets in the agricultural industries — farming, ranching. We are reaching out now to farmers. We’re also very successful selling it to retail outlets.”

But the company’s inventory includes not only the compost Portland’s households have produced this year, but also one- to two-years of compost that Recology inherited when it acquired the site.  Dutra’s says he’s optimistic it can be sold at a profit, but it’s going to take a few years.

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