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Gresham hopes to take a bite out of food waste

Compost program under consideration for restaurants, grocery stores

If members of the Gresham City Council approve a resolution from the Department of Environmental Services on Tuesday, Nov. 1, commercial food scraps could wind up fertilizing your garden.

'Food waste can be used as compost,' said Dan Blue, program manager for Gresham's Recycling and Solid Waste Program. 'It's no different than the leaves in your backyard, composting back into the ground. So instead of putting a useable product into a landfill, we can divert it and process it and turn it into a beneficial product.'

The proposed food waste diversion resolution, challenges large volume restaurants and grocery stores to collect food scraps in separate containers for garbage collection. The result is a reduction in the amount of garbage generated and potentially, a cheaper commercial hauling bill.

According to Blue, Gresham is not imitating Portland by offering businesses the opportunity to recycle food waste, but capitalizing on the lessons learned during a six-month pilot project the city conducted among 11 volunteer businesses in 2007.

'At that time, we negotiated with the haulers to reduce the participants' garbage bills to see what worked and what didn't,' he said. 'The waste was going to a processing plant in North Plains, but we discontinued the program at the end of the pilot project because there were no other local areas doing the processing. Now, we have two options to take our food waste and two more coming on line. That's the reason we're offering the program again.'

Currently, collected garbage is trucked to a landfill in Eastern Oregon. The decomposition process produces methane gas, which creates a negative impact on the environment. Landfills are also expensive to operate because of maintenance and transportation costs.

Food waste processing plants, on the other hand, are like massive compost heaps. They are tended with sunlight and moisture to produce an organic decomposition, yielding a product that can be sold commercially to landscapers and home gardeners.

Separating food waste isn't a time consuming process, Blue said. It's just a matter of rethinking and reorganizing how to dispose of edible garbage.

'A lot of food waste is generated in the kitchen with chopping and cutting,' he explained. 'Instead of tossing it in the garbage can, if you have a container handy and available for food waste, it's easy to integrate into the daily food preparation process. Discarded food is the heaviest material in a garbage can, but it's cheaper to get rid of food waste per ton than garbage per ton.'

At the September City Council meeting, Blue outlined the approximate collection costs for a business before and after volunteering for the food waste program. A large restaurant, using a 15-yard dumpster for mixed garbage collection three times a week, would pay $924 a month for garbage service.

By signing on with the program, the same restaurant could downgrade to a 12-yard garbage bin and use a three-yard bin for food waste. The result would be an $888 monthly bill.

A savings that could be higher

'The more they can get into the food waste container, the cheaper their garbage bill,' Blue said. 'When you take out the food waste and recycling, what do you have left?'

The idea of recycling food waste is catching on among businesses, Blue said, based on a survey the city took in August. Of the 57 respondents who took the survey, 24 were in the food service industry. Ninety-percent said they both supported a food waste program and would volunteer to participate if their overall costs didn't change.

'This tells us they are willing to divert their waste and invest the time if it doesn't increase their garbage bill,' Blue said. 'We've created a program model that conservatively won't cost them any more. But if they do a good job, it could save them money each month.'

Should the City Council approve the food waste resolution, Blue and his staff are ready to help businesses that voluntarily get up and running. A $60,000 grant from Metro Regional Services will be used for education and another $25,000 grant from Metro will allow for purchase of needed equipment.

Taking care of Mother Earth, it seems, begins in the kitchen.

'We absolutely want to focus on the large food generating businesses,' Blue said, 'restaurants, grocers and food product manufacturers. We're encouraging larger producers to participate, but smaller businesses are welcome too. We plan to support them every step of the way.'