The Metro Council voted Thursday in favor of an ordinance that will require some types of businesses in greater Portland to separate their food scraps from the garbage.
This means that, starting in March 2020, businesses that generate 1,000 pounds or more of food scraps per week must collect their food scraps separately from garbage. The program will roll out over five years. Eventually, almost 3,000 businesses, including schools, will be required to separate their food scraps. Businesses that generate less than 250 pounds of food scraps per week will not be subject to the requirement.
Businesses in the Portland area already have to separate recyclables like metal, paper and glass from their trash.
So why add food scraps - stuff such as eggshells, bones and peels - to this list?
Food is the biggest component of what the greater Portland area throws away — enough food to fill 5,000 long-haul trucks a year. More than half of that food comes from businesses. When food gets to a landfill, it rots and generates methane, a potent contributor to climate change.
Thursday’s vote comes after more than a decade of voluntary participation by some businesses in food scraps collection programs. But food scraps diverted from the landfill have stalled out at about 24,000 tons per year. The expectation is that under the new ordinance about 59,000 tons of food scraps will be collected per year when it is fully implemented.
Metro, which is charged with managing garbage and recycling in greater Portland, is in talks with Waste Management about processing the food scraps. If an agreement is reached on the proposal Waste Management submitted, food scraps will end up at the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services’ Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Facility, where an anaerobic digester will convert the scraps into electricity.
Since 2016, Metro has reached out to hundreds of businesses, property managers, local government officials and others to get input on the policy. According to a survey conducted last September, business owners were mostly supportive but worried about things like increased costs, odors, and space for storing extra bins.
The Metro Council meeting last week was the last chance for public testimony on the ordinance adopted Thursday.
“We reduced our garbage bill, so that was a nice bonus,” said Punky Scott, owner of the Bomber Restaurant near Milwaukie.
Having food-waste-only bins also made it clear, she explained, that some portions were too large, so the restaurant cut back. So far, she told Metro Council, “nobody has said, ‘I’m only getting two-thirds of my tater tots.’”
In written testimony, Scott Youngblood, general manager of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Portland Washington Square, noted that since implementing food scrap separation, waste removal costs have been reduced by one third.
Both he and Scott emphasized that technical support from local governments had been invaluable in implementing successful systems.
Representatives from public and private schools who have been voluntarily separating food scraps all spoke in favor of adopting the requirement.
The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association supports food waste collection, but does not support a mandatory approach.
Metro has been working with local governments to design environmentally and economically sustainable infrastructure for recycling food scraps.
“I strongly encourage adoption [of the ordinance],” said Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling manager at the City of Portland, speaking at last week’s meeting. He emphasized that relying on voluntary collection of food scraps has not been enough to ensure the kind of steady supply of food scraps that makes it feasible to build a new processing facility locally.
One recurring question has been how the new system will work for communities in Washington County which may be far from the (proposed) food scrap processing centers. Trips to North Portland could prove both expensive and, because of traffic, very slow for waste haulers.
To address this, upcoming draft administrative rules, which will be released for public comment this fall, will include a payment mechanism to help offset transportation costs for garbage haulers that collect from areas that are farther away from transfer stations.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway, testifying at last week’s meeting, called this a “Band-Aid solution.” He and Sherwood Mayor Keith Mays, who submitted written testimony, argued that the lack of solid-waste infrastructure in the region should be addressed before a policy is enacted.
Before the council voted Thursday, Paul Slyman, director of Metro’s Property and Environmental Services department, told councilors that Metro’s aim is to have distributed infrastructure for the transfer of food scraps. He couldn’t yet give further details because “our ability to have a network of facilities that accept commercial food scraps across the region is tied to negotiations that are still in process.”
Will the ordinance affect the garbage bills of ratepayers? Possibly, said Metro spokesman Ken Ray, though it will vary community to community and business by business. Outside of Portland, city and county governments set garbage collection rates for businesses. Many jurisdictions recently raised rates, largely to account for increased recycling costs.
What happens next?
Now that the Metro Council has approved the ordinance, the next step is to consider the administrative rules that include all the details on how the code will be administered and enforced. Earlier drafts of proposed administrative rules were made available in two rounds of public comments over the past year. These will undergo further public review and comment, later this fall before approval by Metro chief operating officer Martha Bennett.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Metro Council voted to ban the disposal of any food scraps generated by businesses in a landfill in 2025. In fact, Metro Council directed its staff to develop a proposal by the end of 2019 for a future ban. Metro regrets the error.