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Confused about all those green-and-white composting bins?

Lake Oswego's new residential organics collection program started this week; here's what you need to know to get started


COURTESY OF CITY OF LAKE OSWEGO - Materials prepared by the City of Lake Oswego show the ins and outs of the new residential composting program.If you’re a Lake Oswego resident with garbage collection service, chances are you found a small green-and-white pail in your driveway at some point during the past couple of weeks.

The pails were distributed by Republic Services, the City's garbage and recycling collector, to kick off a new residential composting program that was approved by the City Council earlier this year. The service officially begins this week, but it has already prompted a flood of social media posts and calls to City Hall from residents who aren't quite sure why they received the containers or what they are now supposed to do with them.

Jenny Slepian, the City's sustainability and management fellow, says the answer is really pretty simple: Starting June 1, residents can keep the pails in their kitchen to collect food waste — including meat, bones, dairy, fats, grease, coffee grounds (including the filter), tea bags and greasy pizza boxes. All of that can then be dumped into yard debris bins.

There will be no change to collection schedules or frequency, Slepian says. All waste, recycling and yard debris will continue to be picked up weekly. The program follows the model of similar programs, she says, which have rolled out in Portland and other cities in recent years.

But who pays for the pails? What about pests and odors? And what if someone doesn't want to participate? The Review sat down with Slepian on the eve of the program's launch to learn more about residential composting. Here's what she had to say:

Q: Who's paying for this program?

A: “The most common question is, ‘Are my tax dollars paying for this?’" Slepian says. “The answer is no. Their rates for Republic Services are.”

The cost of the composting program and the pails is covered by an increase in garbage utility rates for Lake Oswego customers — about $1.89 per month for most people. The rate increase was approved by the City Council in March, and it applies to all households using a 35- gallon-or-larger garbage cart.

But food waste can make up a significant portion of a household’s garbage, Slepian says, so the City's theory is that by diverting food waste to the yard debris bin, customers may be able to save money by switching to smaller, 20-gallon carts, which are exempt from the rate hike.

Q: Why are meat and dairy allowed? They can’t be put in backyard composters.

A: Different organic substances decompose at different rates, Slepian says, and some need specific conditions in order to decompose quickly. Meat and dairy are especially tricky and require far more heat than a backyard compost bin can provide — and if they kept sitting in the bin without decomposing, they could become a target for pests. But under the new program, food scraps will be hauled away every week, and they'll be taken to a facility that can handle the processing.

“Meat and dairy are the big ones that you really need to have pretty controlled conditions to get them to break down,” says Slepian. “The facility where food scraps are going uses a complicated system of piping to keep piles at the optimum heat and air levels to allow those types of materials to break down. Backyard compost would never get the exact mixture that would allow those materials to break down before rodents got into it.”

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jenny Slepian, Lake Oswego's sustainability and management fellow, uses one of the new green-and-white residential composting pails to toss food scraps into a yard debris bin. The city's organics-collection service began this week.

Q: Will pests be attracted to food scraps in the yard waste bins? What about ants and fruit flies in the kitchen?

A: According to Slepian, as long as the yard waste bin is collected weekly, there won’t be time for maggots and other pests to move in.

“After all, that same debris currently ends up in garbage bins, and sealed garbage bags won’t slow down rats and maggots,” says Slepian. “Animals can smell right through that. So if you currently don’t have a pest problem in your garbage bin, you’re unlikely to develop one in your yard waste bin — as long as you remember to put it out for pickup each week.”

Slepian says that some people became concerned after hearing reports that Portlanders have begun to face worsening pest problems after the city rolled out its composting program last year. But the key difference, she says, is that Portland also cut back its garbage pickup frequency when it started the program.

“Portland’s garbage collection is now every other week,” she says. “In Lake Oswego, ours will still be every week. There’s no change to collection.”

As for ants and fruit flies, Slepian says the solution is to add peppermint oil or vinegar to the pail and the cart, which will make the food less attractive to bugs.

"Spraying vinegar in there will also help keep it a little cleaner as well," she says.

Q: What about the smell?

A: The smell of decomposing food is definitely unpleasant, but Slepian says the vents on the top of the pails are actually designed to minimize odor. The decomposition process requires a warm, moist environment to get started, she says, but the vents ensure that the pails remain cool and dry, so the food doesn’t start decomposing while it’s still sitting in the kitchen.

There are also a couple of other tricks that can help absorb odors, such as throwing in coffee grounds or baking soda. And to really make sure the decomposition process stays on hold, people can also put their pails in the refrigerator or even the freezer.

“The fridge keeps it a little bit colder, and the reason why that is good is because really what you need for food to start breaking down is heat,” says Slepian. “And if you put them in the freezer, the food freezes so you really don’t get any odor.”

Q: Is there anything that shouldn’t go in?

A: So-called “compostable” bags have actually been creating problems for other programs and should be left out, Slepian says. Instead, residents should line their pails with newspaper or paper bags, which are confirmed to break down correctly.

“Compostable bags aren’t breaking down at the facility as well as they should be, and it’s creating this kind of green confetti,” says Slepian. “So when they turn around to sell that compost to farmers, the farmers don’t want compost that has little pieces of green plastic in it That’s not good for their animals and crops.”

In addition to the bags, Slepian also advises against putting in other products such as hot cups and silverware, even if they’re advertised as compostable.

“A lot of those products that were developed to be compostable are just not breaking down the way that everybody hoped that they would,” says Slepian. “They’re seeing little pieces of forks sticking out and things like that. Any time you start a new process, it’s going to be like this. But (for the moment), the easiest way to think of this is instead of scraping your food into your garbage disposal or garbage can, just scrape it into your pail.”

Q: What should be done with unwanted pails? What if someone wants a pail but didn’t receive one?

A: In either case, go to City Hall. City staff are collecting unwanted pails and will be happy to share them with people who want them, Slepian says.

Republic Services can also help, but residents might get a faster result by going to the City. Slepian says the distribution of the pails has gone well but not perfectly, so it’s possible some pails may have been inadvertently lost or discarded.

“If somebody says, ‘I don’t want my pail,’ they can drop it off at City Hall and we will take it from them,” says Slepian. “We are already getting people who are coming in and asking for one. Republic Services will also have them, but it’s easier for them if they just want to pop into City Hall.”

Q: Where can residents learn more about the program?

A: First of all, be sure to open the pail — there’s an information pamphlet inside each one. Beyond that, residents can learn more about the specifics of the program by visiting the City’s website at www.Lakeoswego.city/locomposts. The webpage also includes links to instructional videos produced with the help of the Lake Oswego Fire Department.

Residents can also contact Jenny Slepian for more information by calling 503-635-0291 or emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

LEARN MORE

• For more information on the City's new residential composting program, go to www.Lakeoswego.city/locomposts.

• Better yet, check out the how-to video on YouTube, starring LOFD Lt. Paul Lauritzon and Driver/Engineer Andy Owens, for tips and tricks. It’s available online at youtu.be/IJ1CqX8U7jM.