Much of the recent U.S. interest in organics processing has focused on using high-tech composting systems or generating energy from the mix of yard trimmings, food scraps, non-recyclable paper and other organic materials that are often landfilled. These programs are taking shape largely in urban and suburban areas that have relatively high disposal costs and a population that generally provides the scale required for these approaches.

But these programs inadvertently overlook solid waste managers for independently-minded but severely fiscally contrained small cities and towns and surrounding rural areas. This leaves these managers with two choices: quietly continue to do nothing or next to nothing to reduce organics disposal in their communities, or entertain overly elaborate options, risking loss of community control and large unexpected costs. This article explores how one community pursued practical, low-cost options to increase the recycling of organic materials.

Case Study: Tri-County Hazardous Waste & Recycling Program

Covering Hood River, Sherman and Wasco counties in Oregon, the Tri-County Hazardous Waste & Recycling Program hired Cascadia Consulting Group to develop options and recommendations for organic materials management in the Columbia Gorge region. Located approximately 70 miles east of Portland, the region's economy depends upon agriculture, forestry and recreation. The area is known particularly for its apples, pears and cherries, and for river-based wind surfing. The population of this region was estimated to be slightly less than 50,000 residents in 2008. The largest incorporated area, The Dalles, has approximately 12,000 residents.

Organic materials in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream are not only costly to collect and haul, but produce greenhouse gas emissions as they decompose. The open burning of yard debris, orchard trimmings and other organics contributes to respiratory ailments in nearby populations, and the resulting haze hinders the fruit production that is a cornerstone of the local economy.

In analyzing the problem, consultants took the following steps:

  • Prepared an inventory of organic materials in the Columbia Gorge region.
  • Identified existing and potential infrastructure for managing organic materials.
  • Reviewed the regulatory framework governing organics management in the region.
  • Obtained stakeholder input through interviews and a community meeting.
  • Developed management scenarios and rated them on selected evaluative criteria.
  • Recommended actions for increasing organics recovery in the Columbia Gorge.

Organic Materials Inventory

The total compostable portion of the Tri-County area's disposed waste is estimated to be about 20,000 tons, or about 38 percent of total disposed MSW. Two neighboring Washington counties, Klickitat and Skamania, dispose an additional 8,000 tons of compostable materials annually. The most prevalent compostable materials in the disposed waste stream include food, leaves and grass, compostable paper, and scrap wood (e.g., broken pallets).

Organic materials that currently are diverted from the waste stream include portions of orchard biomass, spent grains and yeast, wastewater solids from food processing, and organic remnants from fruit packing houses. Together, orchards, food processors and fruit packing houses are estimated to divert about 30,000 tons each year of organics for composting, animal feed and other beneficial uses. In addition, an estimated 150,000 tons of logging residues and materials are removed annually by forest thinning in the area. Overall, potentially more than 200,000 tons of compostable material could be available each year for new organics management strategies, including organic material that is currently diverted for other purposes or disposed.

Organics Management Infrastructure

The study reviewed the existing regional capacity to handle organic materials, including collection, transfer and processing facilities. Currently, commercial haulers in the Tri-County area handle yard trimmings but not food scraps. Two local haulers provide drop-off locations for yard trimmings, and one offers subscription service for the collection of residential yard trimmings. These materials are not locally processed into saleable products; rather, they are either trucked long distances to an out-of-region composting facility, or ground locally and stockpiled or given away for free.

The existing infrastructure for processing organic materials in the Columbia Gorge is limited. Capacity at composting facilities is available about 65 or more miles away. Truck transport costs to such facilities are significant to prohibitive.

At the time of the study, no facilities in Oregon were accepting all types of food scraps (i.e., of plant-based origin, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, and of animal-based origin, such as meat and dairy).) Some facilities in Washington compost all types of food scraps, but the nearest one is about 160 miles away.

Regulations and Permitting

The study reviewed the regulatory framework that governs new and existing composting facilities in Oregon and Washington. It appears to be less challenging to obtain a compost facility operations permit in Oregon than in other states. Oregon's rules feature fewer layers of review, facilitate discussions directly with permitting decision makers and allow for a more predictable project path.

Stakeholder Input

Numerous interviews with composting facility operators, prospective facility developers, regulators, local government officials, waste haulers and other interested parties were conducted to identify and evaluate key issues, needs, opportunities and potential recommendations that reflect the region's particular conditions. A community meeting was held in January 2010 at the Mosier Grange with more than 50 farmers and orchardists, businesses, current and potential organics processors, haulers, local government officials, and members of the public. Stakeholder input addressed facility siting and location, feedstocks, environmental benefits, weighing costs and benefits, and other topics. A main thread that developed was the desire to find local solutions, however partial at first, and to use or develop available local resources and capabilities.

Organics Management Scenarios and Recommendations

The study developed eight potential scenarios for organics management in the region. The three top-ranked options all involve collecting residential yard trimmings and scrap wood in the two cities of size while expanding mobile grinding for woody materials in rural areas. The options differ in whether the yard trimmings and scrap wood are processed locally or exported out of the region and in whether food scraps are addressed.

Refinement of the three top organics management strategies and implementation in three stages were recommended. In the near term, the system should be moderately sized, easy to implement, low-cost and low-risk. Elements to set up immediately include the following:

  • Enhancing mobile chipping of woody yard debris and commercial scrap wood in rural areas.
  • Supporting centralized grinding of woody yard debris and scrap wood for mulch or boiler fuel.
  • Fostering home composting.
  • Increasing curbside collection of residential leaves and grass by franchised haulers for composting at an out-of-area yard trimmings composting facility or for composting at a small local compost site.
  • Encouraging private haulers and large commercial generators to communicate with each other to make their own arrangements to handle organic materials for beneficial use.

In the medium term, the Tri-County area could expand the system by:

  • Maximizing the diversion of yard trimmings.
  • Piloting a commercial vegetative food scraps collection program.
  • Developing a local composting and grinding facility or securing a long-term agreement with an out-of-area composting facility.
  • Modifying franchise and collection agreements to expand organics collection.

In the longer term, the Tri-County area could build a comprehensive organics management system by:

  • Developing infrastructure to collect and process all types of residential and commercial organics, including yard trimmings, scrap wood, food scraps of all types, and soiled paper.
  • Expanding the system to address organics outside the municipal solid waste stream, such as forestry slash and agricultural residues.

Immediate Outcomes

In January 2010, the Tri-County program issued a "Request for Expression of Interest" regarding organics management activities in the region, and sought responses from current or potential producers, processors, haulers, product sellers and product consumers. A local start-up company emerged, and in May 2010, The Dalles City Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit and a site review at a former local lumber operations site for Dirt Hugger LLC's five-acre commercial compost facility. Pierce Louis, company principal, said, "As a starting point, the facility will initially generate about 2,000 tons of compost per year from yard debris and vegetative food scraps. Eventually, we hope to grow to 10,000 tons per year or more."

As a follow-up to the January 2010 stakeholders' meeting, a local working group of key players met to plan the details of their rural regional strategy for organics management. Stakeholders included local governments, solid waste haulers, the new composting company, the relevant state regulatory agency and a local wood grinding outfit. The group reported to the Tri-County program's steering committee, which awarded a $50,000 grant for start-up of the local composting facility, pending final approval by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Dirt Hugger will rely on the local hauler (a subsidiary of Waste Connections Inc.) to collect and deliver the organic material to its facility, allowing it to focus on processing materials and developing profitable end markets.

Conclusion

Semi-rural communities and small cities could develop a successful organics management system by mirroring the Tri-County approach of coalescing multiple small towns and counties to leverage scant individual resources. This approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of a region's discarded materials, under-utilized physical assets and resources, making it easier to identify and align incentives.

The goals complement each other: stimulating the local economy, reducing localized air pollution and greenhouse gases, and enriching soil. Begin with affordable, low-risk, small-scale solutions. Then build on those initial successes, expanding the materials and quantities handled over time. Likewise, the early involvement of local governments, haulers, regulatory agencies, processors, and residents via a stakeholder process is essential for coordinated follow-through and program success.

Steven Sherman, Senior Manager, Cascadia Consulting Group Inc. (Berkeley, Calif. office) led this study. He can be reached at ssherman@cascadiaconsulting.com or 510-773-2776. David Skakel serves as Solid Waste Specialist with the Tri-County Hazardous Waste & Recycling Program.

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