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City composter sniffs out a solution

Nature's Need looks for alternate site to take Portland's food waste


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT - Air is drawn out of compost piles and filtered before being discharged at Nature's Needs.Sustainability experts agree that food waste should be kept out of landfills. They say there are better uses for it, such as turning it into compost or generating energy with it.

But local efforts to recycle food waste have stumbled. Recology officials are talking about diverting commercial food waste from their composting plant in North Plains to reduce offense odors. And Columbia Biogas has not yet finalized the financing for its proposed processing plant in Northeast Portland, prompting at least a six-month construction delay.

Officials with both companies say they hope to overcome these challenges and get back on track in 2013.

Recology officials had thought that about $5 million worth of improvements to their Nature’s Needs composting plant would reduce the odors. But local residents continued to complain and the Washington County commissioners are balking on extending the company’s permit to process food waste at the plant. So the company is considering diverting commercial food waste to another location for processing.

“Commercial food waste is one of the more difficult waste streams to manage. We are considering diverting it from the North Plains plant if we can find another green facility to accommodate it,” says Recology Vice President Paul Yamamoto.

The possible change is one of several proposals that are scheduled to be discussed before the commission at a Jan. 8 work session.

Columbia Biogas President John McKinney says his company has continued to line up support for its proposed plant near the Portland International Airport. It would use bacteria to break down food waste in a process called anaerobic digestion. The energy in the food waste would be recaptured and could be burned to generate electricity or refined into a form of natural gas.

But McKinney had originally hoped to break ground on the plant in the fall 2012. Now groundbreaking is not scheduled until the next few months, at the earliest.

Complaints pile up

Recology has been composting food waste and yard debris from Portland for more than two years. North Plains residents began complaining about odors from the plant in October 2011, around the time Portland instituted its curbside composting program, which encourages residents to mix food waste with yard debris. The mixture is picked up by garbage haulers and taken to Metro’s Central Transfer Station in Northwest Portland. The station is operated under contract by Recology, which hauls the mixture to its North Plains composting plant.

But the station also receives commercial food waste under a recycling program that Portland started several years ago. Under the program, food waste is picked up from restaurants, grocery stores and food processors and taken to the station, where it has been mixed with the residential yard debris and food waste.

After North Plains residents began complaining about the odors, Recology spent about $5 million during the past year doing such things as paving the processing areas and installing a draining system to divert moisture from the composting piles. But the changes have not been enough to satisfy the residents, who have continued to complain to Washington County commissioners.

The commission originally approved a permit allowing Nature’s Needs to process food waste only until the end of December. With complaints continuing to pile up, the commissioners pressured Recology officials to work with county staff, North Plains officials and local residents to find a solution. On Dec. 18, the commission extended the permit for a month. It expires on Jan. 22.

Recology officials are considering diverting the commercial food waste from there to another facility. Metro officials say commercial food waste typically accounts for approximately a fourth of all the compostable material being sent to Nature’s Need. They say only a relatively small amount of food waste is being collected through Portland’s curbside composting program.

Yamamoto says Recology needs time to identify another facility that can receive and process the commercial food waste. He believes that even if the Nature’s Needs plant only continues processing yard debris mixed with residential food waste, it can remain economically viable — especially if other jurisdictions in the region adopt curbside composting programs like Portland.

Alternative destination

The Columbia Biogas plant is proposed to be built at 6849 N.E. Columbia Blvd. By the time news of the plant first broke in early March 2012, McKinney had lined up a lot of support for it, including Metro, the Oregon Restaurant Association, the Columbia Corridor Association, the Portland Business Association and the surrounding Cully Neighborhood Association.

Later, he even reached an agreement with Pacific Power to buy the electricity produced there. Remaining residue could become fertilizer, McKinney said.

But McKinney has yet to

finalize the financing for the plant, estimated to cost about $55 million. Originally, Mayor Sam Adams proposed guaranteeing the borrowing costs, allowing Columbia Biogas to receive $15 million from a private lender and leverage another $27 million or so in federal grants and tax credits. But Commissioner Dan Saltzman balked at the idea, and Adams never presented a formal proposal to the City Council.

In late March 2012, McKinney sent a letter to Adams saying he would not need city support after all. But construction did not start when planned. McKinney says he is confident the project will move forward in early 2013, although he did not offer a specific timeline.

It will apparently not be in time for Recology to identify the Columbia Biogas plant as the alternative destination for the commercial food waste now going to North Plains, however.