County's recycling effort goes organic

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Stagnating recycling rates in green-leaning King County haven't stopped local governments from pushing forward into what some call the next frontier of recycling: persuading people to not toss their grimy coffee filters, carrot peelings and other "organic" waste into the trash can.

Last week 1,400 suburban homes on the Eastside began a pilot project in which they are asked to separate leftovers, greasy pizza boxes and other food-related trash from their garbage. The refuse will be collected and turned into compost, instead of ending up in the county's Maple Valley landfill.

A slightly different program will begin next month with 300 homes in Lake Forest Park.

The trash reduction helps the environment and can save residents and businesses money, say waste-management officials in San Francisco, home to the nation's first city-scale recycling program for food waste, and officials at the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, where organic waste is also collected.

The $125,000 experiment on the Eastside and in Lake Forest Park begins at a time when recycling rates in the greater Seattle area have plateaued, and sometimes even fallen. The percentage of Seattle's waste that is recycled reached a high of 43 in 1995 but fell to about 40 percent in 2000. Outside of Seattle, King County's curbside recycling rate of 47 percent has held steady the past three years.

"Organic recycling is the next step" in reducing waste, said Janet Nazy, executive director of the Washington State Recycling Association.

The 'ick' factor

Training people to do something different, when they perceive the task may be unpleasant, will be a big hurdle, say organizers at test cities. In a program two years ago in Seattle, one of the nation's greenest cities, just 26 percent of 426 residents separated food waste out of their trash. Those who didn't take part cited fear of odor as a primary excuse.

Some experts who study how trash decays also question whether large-scale organic recycling is the smartest strategy for the future. They say it may be more beneficial for the environment to bury food waste in a modern landfill and capture the methane gas produced by decomposition than to create mountains of compost.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the trash produced by households, by weight, is organic waste. Leftover food, grass clippings, soiled paper towels and similar items are "the single largest component of the waste stream that we don't currently recycle," said Josh Marx, organics program coordinator for King County. In 2000, about 180,000 tons of such waste was dumped at Cedar Hill landfill, the recipient for trash from county homes and businesses outside Seattle. Seattle's organic waste is shipped by train to a landfill in Eastern Oregon.

Converting old foodstuffs and fishwrap to compost indirectly benefits the environment, supporters say. The nutrient-rich final product can be returned to the soil as a natural fertilizer. Pulling organics from landfills reduces the amount of harmful leachate that must be treated. And less waste slows the rate at which the dumps fill. The county's landfill is expected to be topped off and closed by 2013, after which trash will have to be hauled elsewhere, at greater cost.

Testing participation

For the next nine months, residents on some garbage routes in Redmond, Kirkland and Issaquah are being asked to place their chicken bones and melon rinds with yard waste and put them curbside during the weekly pickup of trash and other recycling.

Organizers want to see how well households embrace the idea. The county's health department wants to see how much the organic trash smells, and whether it attracts many maggots, flies and scavengers.

Education will be key to getting people to overcome concerns, and to alter habits in a society so accustomed to discarding, say organizers.

Nazy, of the Washington State Recycling Association, saw the challenge firsthand during January's National Recycling Congress in Seattle when the group turned its reception into an experiment in food-waste recycling

"Here we had 600 recyclers and we said, 'Hey, please scrape your own plates,' and many of them didn't," she recalled.

"I think it will be easier here" to encourage recycling than elsewhere in the nation, "but I think people will still have to change their behavior, and that's not easy to do."

The program that begins in Lake Forest Park next month will distribute 60-gallon aerated containers designed to further reduce odor. Residents are to mix food waste with yard waste. The bins will be emptied every two weeks instead of weekly, which requires one less garbage truck on the street.

Such bins, even when picked up biweekly, attracted very few insects, smelled less than their counterparts and were used by 45 percent of residents, in a follow-up study in Seattle two years ago. The study, however, involved only 50 households.

Garbage rates today offer a small financial incentive for households not to throw away food waste, since households are usually charged for the size of the trash container they use.

Large-scale successes

San Francisco has become the poster child for big-city success in organics recycling. The city collected 40,000 tons of food residuals, waxed cardboard and other compost materials from more than 62,000 households and 1,000 businesses last year.

Some Canadian cities such as Halifax require residents to recycle food waste.

At the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, a project to collect compost materials was so successful it has been made permanent.

Despite its experiments with households, Seattle of late has focused on encouraging businesses to recycle — with mixed success.

"These days it's just barely cheaper than garbage" for a business to recycle food waste, said Hans Van Dusen, a strategic planner for Seattle Public Utilities.

Some trash-decay experts say composting, however noble, may not be so smart a move as dumping those bread crusts in the landfill, under the right conditions.

"If you put food waste in landfills and you recover the methane from the landfill and convert it to electrical energy, that is, in fact, going to be far more beneficial for the environment from a greenhouse-gas and energy perspective, than composting that same material," said Morton Barlaz, associate head of civil engineering at North Carolina State University.

"But I didn't say it's cheaper," Barlaz added.

Composting may be an important tool for the future, given how the area now handles its waste, said those responsible for overseeing recycling in Seattle and King County. The county's rapidly filling landfill, for example, burns off the methane produced at the landfill, and does not recover it.

Chris Solomon can be reached at 206-515-5646 or