There are a lot of good places to put food. Your grocery bag is a good start, as is the restaurant down the street.
Increasingly, though, solid waste industry officials are concerned about one of the worst places for food to go – the landfill.
Food makes up about 18 percent of the garbage shipped to landfills – most of which is trucked to Columbia Ridge, 150 miles east of Portland. There, it rots, belching methane and other noxious gasses into the atmosphere.
Yep. One fifth of the Portland region's trash is just rotting food – and that's with aggressive campaigns in Portland proper to cut down on food waste going into the garbage.
There's more to the issue than methane. If garbage haulers could get the food out of the trash, it might be possible to sort through that now-dry refuse, finding recyclables and reusable material to pull from the waste stream. That means less re-usable stuff going to the landfill and more being repurposed into something useful.
Metro, which manages the Portland region's solid waste system, is about halfway through a years-long look at how to overhaul the region's trash network. A hodgepodge of hundreds of contracts with companies that haul, burn, recycle or bury solid waste all expire in 2019.
At a Metro Council work session last week, planners from Metro's solid waste departments took the council's temperature on what to study on the food waste side of the equation. Matt Korot, a manager in Metro's Sustainability Center, said his department got two directives from councilors.
Korot said the council wanted to look at whether a ban would make sense in the Portland region. Seattle and San Francisco have both instituted such bans.
But the council also wanted options for financial incentives for increased composting of food waste, Korot said.
The council wanted staff to "look at what the meaningful options would be to financially incentivize the separation of food waste as an alternative to a regulatory ban," Korot said.
That could mean adjusting the fees Metro charges for garbage and food waste, to encourage residents and businesses to cut down on the amount of food they put in the trash. It would also likely involve making it easier to send food waste into the composting stream.
But then what happens? The problems that arose after Portland launched curbside food waste composting are well-documented. A compost processing facility near North Plains drew scores of complaints from nearby residents after processing problems created unpleasant odors. With limits on how much food waste could be sent to North Plains, some compostable food was sent hundreds of miles into Washington. The issue largely resolved itself when commercial food waste – usually more noxious, because it's not mixed with the lawn clippings and fallen leaves of yard debris – was pulled from the waste stream.
Metro officials are leaning away from composting near the Portland region as the key way of managing food waste, turning instead to another technology – anaerobic digestion.
When food waste is composted, piles of the slop are left to stew in their own bacteria, heating up, cooking in the sun, and eventually turning into garden-friendly compost. While it's minimally odorous when done right, changing environmental or composting conditions can cause the pile to just stink.
Food waste that's anaerobically digested, by contrast, is not put in a big pile. Instead, it's processed in a contained, oxygen-free environment. The breakdown of the food in the digester produces gases that make electricity. Whatever's left in the digester after processing can be turned into fertilizer.
Some of the region's food waste is sent to a digester in Junction City, 90 miles south of Portland. Another facility, Columbia Biogas, is planned along Columbia Boulevard in Northeast Portland. It was approved after binding agreements with area residents and Metro about how many trucks could come in and out of the facility, and what would happen if foul odors were detected by area residents.
But can that kind of facility actually get sited anywhere near existing homes?
"You have to make it transparent for folks – what they'd be getting in their neighborhood, how an anaerobic digester has no resemblance other than the feedstock to a composting facility," Korot said. "To have a fighting chance, we'd have to demonstrate that it doesn't bring down the quality of life."
No decisions have been made yet – the council simply told staff what to study further. It's got another year or two before it's time to make a decision.
But judging from last week's work session, it's doubtful the decision will involve the status quo.
"To me, the craziest thing," said Councilor Carlotta Collette, "is that we haul food off to the desert when we do have options."