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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  2. NONSENSE, the above is all garbage writing by uneducated people. I’m surprised as you are leaders in so many areas. The Seattle tilth organization should be able to help you out of this, or various California organizations. And of course I can fix it, with the right budget, but I’m in the Caribbean at the moment for the winter.
    Composting does not have to smell if it is blended and mixed properly! This is simply a matter of providing the right equipment, training and staff. If you collect organics in plastic bags it will stink. If you collect it in paper bags or carts it won’t.
    The City of Ann Arbor,Michigan has been composting yard waste & food waste for over ten years with out significant odors, other than the pleasant smell of fall leaves. Adding food waste simply involves mixing in a proper amount of carbon material, leaves, wood chips newspaper, corn husks, rice hulls, etc to off set the high nitrogen content of grass and food “raw materials”.
    I’m sorry the Great City of Oregon is having problems. Many consultants can easily fix this problem with Rays “M&M’s” (c.r.) program.
    “All new programs need new M&M’s, that is new Motivation, new Mechanical equipment, new Manpower (womenpower) and new Money. Absent any of these new inputs then programs are bound to fail. The problem is that people are forced to try and “get by” with what they have instead of planning for what they need.
    Compost sites need a limestone base to filter out liquids and support heavy industrial equipment. $500,000+ They need $300,000 windrow turners and a $500,000 grinder to mix & blend the raw material and $200,000 screeners to screen out and produce a fine final product to sell.
    This also requires motivation to do this right and caring equipment operators who understand they are creating a usable product from source separated materials, not dealing with trash.
    I wish you all the will power to do this important Earth care program properly. You deserve it. It can be done right, without significant unpleasant odors, as has been proved all over the USA & world.
    Cherio, Ray, “the compost Guru”

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