Expanding Composting in Portland Comes With a Stench

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This spring, the city of Portland will introduce an experimental curbside composting program to 2,000 households. While yard waste is already included in the city’s current program, some residents will also be able to toss their food scraps into the same bin.

“It sends a message to customers that’s there’s an easy way to do this,” says Portland’s Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Bruce Walker. “What we’re saying is, ‘please change your habit.’”

If the experiment with food scrap collection receives a positive evaluation, the city will likely design a citywide roll-out for next year, an initiative that residents have been advocating for since 2007.

Yard trimmings and food waste make up 24 percent of all the material households threw away in 2008. According to the EPA, we already recycle almost 65 percent of this material, but there is still room for improvement. Photo: Flickr/Bad Alley

Food scraps decomposing in a landfill emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is extremely potent, and composting cuts down on these emissions, says Walker.

But if not properly maintained, composting does omit an unpleasant stench – an odor that, according to North Plains City Manager Don Otterman, has been bothering the small city for the past 10 years.

“While it’s a good idea to try to compost everything you can to keep it out of the landfill, nobody’s considering the impact that this could potentially have on [the city],” Otterman says.

Private-sector companies collect Portland’s yard debris for composting facilities, and one of these sites is located next door to North Plains, sharing common property lines with houses in the city.

While Otterman says the odor problems have decreased since Recology (the same company that also handles San Francisco’s garbage, recycling and food waste) purchased the site, there are still some days when the improvements just don’t work.

“We still get complaints from residents. We get people driving down Highway 26 that have told us that they know when they get into North Plains because they smell it,” he explains. “And that’s having a pretty bad impact on the city’s reputation.”

With Portland’s initiative to add food scraps to the compost sites, the smell may only get worse if not properly maintained. Information on backyard composting says not to collect meat and dairy products because it is often the source of foul odor, says Otterman.

Currently, Recology is not licensed to collect food scraps at the composting site, but the company is applying for a license.

“I have confidence that, if permitted, that site will significantly reduce any issues that have caused North Plains to raise issues with it,” Walker says. “But, if it’s not approved, then there are other sites that are being developed right now, and that’s where our materials would be delivered.”

Read more about composting:

How to Compost Outside the Home
I Got Worms! Composting & You
Cheat Sheet: Composting

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