FROM FOOD TO FUEL
Metro wants to transform how the Portland area handles food waste, converting our chicken bones, melon rinds and other food scraps into renewable energy instead of burying them in an Eastern Oregon landfill.
To accomplish that, Metro is fashioning new mandates on businesses and local governments to require separate collection of food scraps, culminating in an eventual ban on sending food waste to the landfill. The regional government, responsible for the Portland area's solid waste system, also is soliciting a private company to build a plant that breaks down food waste and turns it into biogas or electricity, or perhaps compost.
"Food waste is just a tremendous resource that we're putting into the ground right now," says Pam Peck, Metro's resource conservation and recycling planning manager.
On May 25, Metro asked companies to submit proposals by July 26 to build a treatment facility. At least two companies confirmed they'll submit proposals, one in Portland and one in Wilsonville. (See related story.)
To guarantee a steady flow of materials for that plant, Metro expects to release proposed rules next month that will require some 2,650 food processers, grocery stores, cafeterias, large restaurants, and other establishments to deposit their food scraps in separate bins for recycling, says agency spokesman Ken Ray. That's akin to what many Portlanders do in a voluntary system.
Cities would have to change their municipal codes and require commercial and institutional garbage haulers to modify their practices and pickup schedules.
The goal is to submit the new mandate to the elected Metro Council for approval in October, says Ray. Eventually, Metro envisions extending the mandate to small restaurants, schools and others, culminating in a possible ban on putting food waste in landfills by 2023.
Most of the metro area's garbage gets trucked some 140 miles to the Arlington landfill, but Metro's landfill and trucking contracts expires by 2020. The agency is exploring ways to do things differently, and is targeting the 18 percent share of our garbage that's food scraps, more than half of it from commercial and institutional food operations.
It takes the equivalent of 14 daily freight trucks to haul the Portland area's food waste to the landfill. Annually, that's akin to a 63-mile parade of trucks, bumper to bumper, filled with banana peels, coffee grounds, chicken bones and other food scraps. Once in the landfill, the food scraps begin to rot and emit methane — a highly potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.
"We want the scraps — the bones, the peels, the trimmings," Peck says. "It's also about reducing the amount of methane that we generate in landfills."
Metro's official Request for Proposals asks companies to produce facilities that produce compost or energy, but experts say the market is shifting away from composting to anaerobic digesting, and they suspect that's what Metro ultimately wants.
A variety of technologies are emerging, and Metro isn't prescribing which one it wants.
Anaerobic digesters deploy bacteria to break down organic waste stowed in enclosed airless structures, which helps turn it into biogas. The biogas can be used for vehicle fuel or other forms of energy, or converted to electricity. Metro isn't specifying which technology to deploy.
Turning food waste into renewable energy might have wide appeal in communities where recycling and countering climate change have wide appeal. And the state recently set a goal of recovering 25 percent of our food waste by 2020.
But it's not so simple.
"Somebody said years ago food doesn't degrade gracefully; it can become smelly and very wet in a hurry," says Nora Goldstein, editor of the BioCycle trade journal, which specializes in processing food waste.
When Portland shifted to voluntary curbside pickup of food scraps several years ago, many people fretted their food-waste containers were smelly and attracted fruit flies, and they worried their recycling bins would attract rats.
Likewise, many restaurant owners will oppose the new mandate, says Greg Astley, government affairs manager for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.
And Oregon has a troubled track record in pursuing advanced recycling, from the Reidel composter fiasco commissioned by Metro in the 1990s to the odor-plagued Nature's Needs compost facility in North Plains earlier this decade. (See related story.)
But composting facilities and anaerobic digesters are becoming common in Europe and are expanding in the United States, including in Junction City outside Eugene. Metro counts six states and 13 municipalities, including Seattle and San Francisco, that have adopted some form of mandatory food scraps collection.
"We feel like this is really the time," Peck says.
Voluntary collections insufficient
Portland, Beaverton, Gresham and Lake Oswego promote voluntary food scrap recycling, which many green-minded restaurants and grocers adopted. About 1,250 commercial and institutional sites participate, though many of them are small operations, Peck says. Combined, they collect 28,000 tons of food waste a year, which gets trucked 90 miles to the J.C. Biomethane plant in Junction City, where it gets turned into electricity, or to a compost site in Adair Village near Corvallis. Washington County banned sending commercial food scraps to the North Plains compost facility due to the foul odors.
Metro says it wants to attract a facility closer to where the waste is produced, to cut down on transport costs and the carbon footprint from sending trucks up and down the freeway. An anaerobic digester, which is done in an enclosed building, figures to be easier to site in the urban area than an outdoor compost site.
"They can't build a landfill near Portland, but they can build a digester near Portland," says Jerry Powell, editor and publisher of Resource Recycling, a Portland-based trade journal.
A key impetus for mandatory food-scraps collection is that volunteer collections have "plateaued," Peck says. Making it mandatory will provide a large enough base of food scraps to "feed" a new digester.
"It's the only way that they can get the facility built," Powell says. "They're only halfway to a viable plant size."
Metro's formal Request for Proposals seeks a facility that could process up to 50,000 tons a year, and the agency would guarantee a 15-year contract to supply food scraps, to make the project pencil out.
McMenamins recycles food scraps at its Seattle brewpubs, where it's mandated, plus 13 sites in the Portland area, where it's voluntary, says Scott Lipscomb, the company's environmental coordinator.
It's not that hard in most cases, Lipscomb says, and it fits the company's environmental ethic. It already separates waste into bins for mixed recyclables, glass, fryer oil, and garbage. Adding food waste meant adding a fifth, covered bin. Since food waste tends to be "gooey," he says, it's easiest to use special biodegradable bags.
"There should be no issues with smell or vermin, or anything like that," he says, "unless you already have that problem with your garbage."
But some places, like McMenamins pubs in Beaverton strip malls or the Barley Mill Pub on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, simply lack space to put the required bins, he says. And the company had to abandon collection of food scraps at its Edgefield concerts in Troutdale when it turned out "compostable" cups couldn't be included, because they didn't break down fast enough.
If restaurants put new bins for food waste on the sidewalk or the alley, often the city or neighbors complain, so there's no place to put them, says Astley of the restaurant association.
But sources say Metro has done a good job helping participants work out kinks in adding food scraps to their recycling programs.
Shari's Cafe & Pies voluntarily collected food scraps at its Tualatin and Sherwood restaurants, but later abandoned the practice, says Jodenne Scott, director of financial support services for the Beaverton-based chain of 95 cafes.
"It was easy enough to do," Scott says. But the cost of buying special bags, and the extra labor it took, weren't offset by any breaks on garbage collection fees despite the lower volumes.
Metro's plan might work if local governments provide the proper garbage-rate incentives, as done with the mandatory program in Washington's King and Pierce counties, she says. "We ended up saving money by going with their programs."
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Stench of past fiascoes clouds new effort
Portland is a national leader in recycling, but the road to taking it to the next level is littered with failures.
In the biggest fiasco, Riedel Environmental Technologies closed down its newly completed Northeast Portland garbage composter in 1992 before it got off the ground. Working closely with Metro, which runs the region's solid waste system, the Portland company led by Art Riedel banked on turning municipal trash into compost using Dano drums from Europe.
First workers picked through bags of household trash piled on a conveyor belt, setting aside recyclables and hazardous items such as hypodermic needles. Later the garbage was rotated in large Dano drums and laid on beds to aerate and turn into compost.
The project was beset by a host of problems, including a stench that sparked neighbor complaints. Riedel lost several million dollars and sold the company.
In 2010, when Portland expanded curbside recycling to include food scraps along with yard debris, complemented by a voluntary program for restaurants and grocery stores to recycle food scraps, much of it went to the Nature's Needs compost site in North Plains.
Despite a series of significant improvements and technical expertise supplied by new owner Recology, the outdoor site was plagued by odor complaints. In 2013, Washington County barred future shipments of commercial food waste there, which was blamed for exacerbating the odor problem.
In 2010, a new company called Columbia Biogas announced it would build an anaerobic digester on Northeast Columbia Boulevard that would turn food scraps into electricity.
The company amassed a talented staff and inked a 20-year contract to sell electricity to PacifiCorp. But financing was elusive and it abandoned the $55 million project in 2015. (Though a principal with the company may submit a proposal for Metro's new effort.)
In 2013, JC-Biomethane opened in Lane County's Junction City, becoming the first plant in the Northwest using anaerobic digestion to turn food waste into energy. Energy Trust of Oregon, which provided subsidies for the project, lists it as a success story on its website. Much of the Portland area's commercial food waste now goes to JC-Biomethane.
Eugene Weekly reported in June 2016 that JC-Biomethane was suffering financial problems. Relying on court documents, the newspaper reported the company wasn't producing all the electricity it promised, faced higher-than-expected costs and was unable to pay its property tax bills.
The company did not respond to a request for an interview.
"We've definitely witnessed great successes and also quite dramatic failures," says Nora Goldstein, editor of the Pennsylvania-based BioCycle trade journal, which covers the industry.
But over the years, Goldstein says, we've learned how to do food waste recycling right. "It's all very doable," she says. "It costs money to do it correctly."
Metro, now seeking a company willing to build a new composter or anaerobic digester closer to Portland, is keenly aware of the spotty local track record.
But comparing the current project to the Riedel composter is "apples and oranges," says Metro spokesman Ken Ray. Riedel tried to make compost from regular garbage, not just food scraps, he notes.
Nature's Needs tried to "shoehorn" food scraps into a site that had too small of a footprint, says Goldstein, who toured the North Plains site.
Columbia Biogas faced a different problem. "They didn't have a guarantee that they could have food scrap scraps, is my understanding," says Pam Peck, Metro's resource conservation and recycling planning manager.
JC-Biomethane "was really struggling with the packaging and contamination" of its waste stream, Goldstein says. That's what prompted it to adopt a food-only policy, she says.
Peck says there are now many successful examples of anaerobic digesters in the United States and Europe, particularly Germany.
Matt Stern, Waste Management's director of recycling and recovery for the Pacific Northwest, says in Europe the food scrap supply is cleaner, less contaminated by napkins, plastic silverware and other foreign materials. Facilities there also tend to have more public funding and ownership, Stern says.
Jerry Powell, editor and publisher of Resource Recycling, a Portland-based trade journal, recently spent three weeks in Europe, and observed some digesters there.
"Digesters appear technically to be quite common and work," Powell says. The big question, he says: "But do they pencil?"
Scrappy firms to bid for food waste plant
A Wilsonville project has a head start to become the Portland area's first plant to turn food scraps into energy, but it'll face competition from industry giant Waste Management and perhaps others.
Metro set a July 26 deadline for companies to submit proposals for building a project to convert the Portland area's food waste into compost or energy. Metro would guarantee a 15-year supply of raw materials, thanks to a new food-waste recycling mandate it's preparing for larger food operations.
Paul Woods, president of Sustainable Organics Recycling Technology Bioenergy, known as SORT, says he's putting in a proposal for his Wilsonville site.
SORT already won a permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, has a site adjacent to the Willamette Resources garbage transfer center in Wilsonville, land-use approval from the city, and a Metro franchise to operate the facility, says Ken Ray, Metro spokesman. "They basically have the government regulatory pieces largely in place," he says.
SORT will propose a form of mesophilic anaerobic digesting similar to what's used to treat municipal sewage, says Woods, a civil engineer and the former environmental manager for the city of Boise, Idaho. Boise had such a digester, he says, calling it a tried and true method that dates back 150 years.
Anaerobic digesting uses microorganisms to break down, or biodegrade, organic materials in the absence of oxygen.
"We have financing lined up for the project," Woods says, if the company can assure a steady supply of food scraps from Metro. SORT will lease its site from Willamette Resources, but that's not who is supplying the money for the project, he says.
General Electric designed the plant and will serve as SORT's technical partner, as it has with nine other plants, he says.
Waste Management will submit a proposal at a parcel it controls in Portland, says Jackie Lang, the company's senior public affairs manager for the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Waste Management is a huge solid waste company that also owns the Arlington landfill where most of the Portland area's trash goes now.
Having a food-waste processing facility so close to where the waste is generated will cut down on transport costs and the carbon footprint of the project, Lang says.
Waste Management expects to propose an anaerobic digester similar to what it has piloted over the past five years in Carson, California; Bostons; and Brooklyn, New York, says Matt Stern, the company's director of recycling and recovery for the Pacific Northwest.
In those plants, the company creates an "engineered bioslurry" from food scraps, he says. "That slurry is a product that boosts the energy and gas production at wastewater treatment facilities," he says. That serves as a "turbo booster" in the production of electricity or motor vehicle fuel.
"It's really to the point where it's proven technology," Stern says.
Waste Management is prepared to fully fund the facility itself, without public money, he says.
Metro, which anticipates other proposals as well, says it hopes to negotiate a contract with one of the companies by year end.
— Steve Law