Metro Councilors said Tuesday that they remain interested in finding ways to get more food scraps out of the Portland region's garbage, possibly including requirements that could be phased in over time.
At a work session, councilors said they want to know more about how a mandate on businesses might work before an expected spring 2017 vote.
The council's guidance is consistent with what they told staff from Metro's Property and Environmental Services Department earlier this year: Accelerate the collection of food scraps, and find a place in the region to process them.
The direction also comes after a decade of voluntary participation in food scraps programs around the region. More than 1,000 businesses in Portland now collect and compost food scraps through a program that started in 2004, and dozens of businesses in Gresham as well as Washington and Clackamas counties also participate. Collectively, about 28,000 tons of food scraps get diverted from the landfill. Some are turned into electricity at a facility north of Eugene and some go to a composting facility near Corvallis.
But it’s not enough. About 200,000 tons of food still get sent to area landfills, primarily the Columbia Ridge landfill near Arlington.
“Wow,” said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington said. “It’s moving at a glacial pace. “
Food is the largest single component of garbage
Metro manages the garbage and recycling system for the Portland metropolitan area. On the garbage side, most of the region’s 1.3 million tons of trash, from businesses and residents, goes to landfills. Nearly a fifth of that is food, and 55 percent of it is generated by businesses.
Food is the single largest component of the garbage. As it decomposes, it emits methane gas, a potent contributor to climate change. And climate, says Matt Korot, resource conservation and recycling program director at Metro, is a key reason Metro is looking at ways to reduce food waste.
It’s known in garbage circles as food waste, and it’s made up of two types of food. One type is the consumable food, ranging from meat and dairy products to fruit and vegetables that spoil before they’re eaten. The other type is food scraps. This is the non-edible stuff, the bones, eggshells, apple cores and plate scrapings. Food scraps are the focus of the direction Metro Council has set.
But the environmental impacts of food don’t start in a landfill. Food production uses considerable resources – land, water, energy, fuel – before it ever makes it to a plate in a restaurant. “This represents waste in all its meanings,” says Korot. Food scraps, he says, are a resource that can be turned into agricultural compost, and energy.
Further, food waste acts like a domino in the garbage system. Food makes garbage wet and heavy. Removing significant amounts leaves behind what’s called dry waste, which is then also more likely to be used as a resource. For example, dry waste is easier to sort for recyclables, another option Metro may pursue.
Input from businesses shaped – and will continue to shape – options
The options considered and ultimately endorsed Tuesday were informed by input from suburban businesses around the region. 58 businesses, including some currently separating food scraps, some that started and then stopped, and some who don’t do it at all, were surveyed by an independent firm that collated input while maintaining the anonymity of survey participants.
Survey respondents indicated that reducing garbage and ensuring lower environmental impacts were key motivators for wanting to separate their food scraps, but that barriers like space, staff training and cost need to be addressed. The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is conducting similar research for its businesses right now.
Councilors agreed on the need to approach any potential mandate or ban with caution, and that any policy that might be implemented would need to be phased in over time, and include incentives and support that ease the transition. The biggest food scrap generators are businesses and institutions like hospitals, large grocery stores, large restaurants and cafeterias. These generators, which include about 850 businesses in the region, would be the first affected by a mandate. Many of them are already separating their food scraps from the garbage.
Costs will be important in the upcoming exploration of policy options.
“We’re not being driven by the sheer economy of the situation,” said Metro Council President Tom Hughes. “The difficulty is what we’re asking is that one segment of the population bears the cost of a benefit that goes to the entire system… mandates need to be borne by a larger segment of public.”
Korot pointed out what he called indirect economic benefits, which can be monetized, such as the calculation used in federal rule-making to account for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that can decrease climate impacts. Benefits of compost and other products made from food waste could also be factored into the overall economics of a potential policy.
For Councilor Sam Chase, the sharing needs to include cost while also going beyond it, with a parallel focus on the prevention of food waste everywhere, including at home. “It’s an ‘and’ strategy,” he said. Related efforts have been underway. For example, in 2004 Metro created Fork it Over, which links grocers and restaurants to food rescue organizations. Metro has also provided nearly $1 million in grants to food banks for trucks, refrigerators and freezers, and has created an interactive exhibit which ran all summer at the Oregon Zoo. And Washington County and other local jurisdictions are now engaging their residents in the Eat Smart Waste Less challenge.
Food scraps mandate or processor: Chicken or egg
The move to explore a mandate is also a move to explore bringing a facility to the Portland region to make something out of food scraps. Earlier this year, Metro issued a request for qualifications for food waste facilities such as a composter, or an anaerobic digester, which, depending on the type, can convert decaying food scraps into compost, fertilizer and energy.
Metro Council has been explicit in its preference to manage food scraps within the Portland region, both to take responsibility for, and reap the benefits of, the food scraps generated here.
“This will help us create another industry that will help us in this effort,” Councilor Shirley Craddick said.
It had been the hope that a continual increase in the supply of food scraps through the voluntary participation of businesses would serve as an invitation to a processor to set up shop in the region. But for a processor to commit to that, it would need a guarantee of 50,000 tons of food scraps a year, double what is now being collected. A mandate may be the only way to both increase the recovery of food scraps for environmental benefit while also triggering the amount needed and ensure that Portland-area food scraps are not being shipped afar.
Along with the processor question is also the question of where food scraps will be transferred from their origin to their destination. Part of the upcoming exploration will include a look whether Metro’s two transfer stations could handle the load and how the region’s needs could be met equitably.
Next spring, Metro staff will bring to council details on options for how a mandate could work, how a ban could be phased in, how costs could be shared, how a processor could come to the region, how the transfer station system would handle the change, and what affected businesses would need to make it work for them.
“We need to stop poisoning the environment with our waste,” Councilor Craig Dirksen said. “I’m looking long-term. Where are my children and grandchildren going to put this stuff?"
Rebecca Koffman contributed to this story.