Forest Grove food-waste program seeing success
A year after rolling out an environmentally friendly food-waste disposal program for its residents, Forest Grove has met its expectations for tons of waste collected.
The program is also reducing the city's greenhouse gas emissions and producing cleaner waste than Portland or Lake Oswego.
So far, no other Washington County cities have launched their own programs but at least one official feels Forest Grove's success might spark others to do so.
After receiving a $27,256 grant from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 2015, the city began its food waste composting program on July 1, 2016. The new program allowed Forest Grove residents to dispose of food waste in an environmentally friendly manner by dropping it in the same bin as their yard waste. The city even provided small, attractive food-waste bins for collecting the scraps indoors.
"I was absolutely delighted when they brought out those bins," said longtime Forest Grove resident Karen Raichart. "They don't stink like my old buckets did, don't look bad on my counter and they're easy to clean."
Old way too hard
Raichart began composting in her backyard about three years ago. She wanted to reduce her garbage and give her fruit plants extra nourishment, so she went to Costco and bought a few compost bins.
"I did it successfully for two years and then it was just a headache," she said.
Composting took more work than she was expecting. Much of the debris wouldn't fully break down so she had to keep mixing it around to help it along. Even worse, a smell often lingered in her house and backyard, requiring extra cleaning time. For Raichart, the city's food-waste program was the perfect answer.
As foster parents, Raichart and her husband taught their foster teenagers about composting. Now living on their own, she said, the teens are still composting using the city's new system.
They're not the only ones doing so. This year, with 149 tons of food waste collected, the city reached just within the expected range of 141 to 198 tons, according to Program Coordinator Brandi Walstead. She says it's not a bad number for a program still in its first year.
Cleanest food waste
After the food waste is collected, it's transported to an industrial composting facility in North Plains called Nature's Needs, where it's broken down through aerobic and anaerobic decomposition.
"Composting essentially closes the loop," said Nick Olheiser, organics manager for Nature's Needs. "We're taking this material that was going to the landfill, saving room for actual waste, and turning it into a useful agricultural product."
When food waste takes up space in a landfill it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, making it a major contributor to climate change. But when food waste is sent to Nature's Needs, farmers around the region use this nutrient-rich compost to nourish their crops and replenish their soils.
Since Forest Grove started the composting program, Olheiser said he's never seen a smoother transition occur — and never such clean food waste from another city.
Things like plastic and wax paper often contaminate food waste sent through city programs and become costly to filter out. Both Portland and Lake Oswego, which also recently jumped on the composting bandwagon, tend to produce "contaminated material," he said.
Olheiser attributes the cleanliness of Forest Grove's program to the large amount of public education that went along with it.
Education is key
"The trick is to educate people enough to get them to be willing to try composting," said Brian Schimmel of the Forest Grove Sustainability Commission.
Through a recycling booth at the Wednesday Market and partnership with Washington County Waste and Recycling, the Sustainability Commission helped explain to residents why composting is so important, as well as what they should or shouldn't put in their new bins.
There are even monetary benefits, said Schimmel, who reduced his trash container to the smallest size — cutting the size of his bill as well.
And Nature's Needs also provides one free yard of compost to anyone participating in the composting program, he said.
Theresa Koppang, manager of solid waste and recycling for Washington County, expects Forest Grove's success to spark the interest of other Washington County cities.
Elsewhere, more waste transfer stations, bins, and other material would be crucial to launching a food-waste program for the 60,000 households in the county's unicorporated areas, Koppang said.
Koppang is researching infrastructure possibilities to do just that, but no official plans are underway: "There's a lot of interest in it but the time isn't quite right."