10 Lessons From 10 Years of Food Residuals Diversion Planning

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

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A solid waste planner in Portland, Oregon shares 10 years of experiences in launching a full-scale project.

METRO launched its full-scale commercial food residuals composting program in January 2005. Many valuable lessons were learned along the sometimes rocky road. The accompanying sidebar provides the latest details on Metro and the city of Portland, Oregon's food residuals management program.

This article relates the history of the program in the context of 10 of the key lessons that my mother taught me early in life. Little did she know these lessons aptly applied to putting together the infrastructure to support a food residuals diversion program. I call it a history rather than background as it has taken 10 years to get to this point.

I work for Metro, a regional government headed by a directly-elected Council that deals with transportation and land use planning, parks, open spaces, visitor services like the Zoo and Convention Center, solid waste reduction planning and the solid waste disposal system. Metro owns two transfer stations and contracts for its operation as well as for landfilling the region's waste. Metro serves the 25 cities and three counties in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area representing 1.4 million people.

Back in 1995, the Metro region wrote and adopted a Regional Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan included some recommended practices and strategies for commercial organics recovery. These practices placed the burden on the private sector to initiate development of an organics recovery system. So we published this organics plan and then we waited. And we waited … and waited some more.

Finally, in 1999 we knew something had to give. We had over 275,000 tons of food and nonrecyclable paper being landfilled annually and we needed to recover 45,000 tons of that to reach our state-mandated 62 percent recovery level by 2005. The good news is we reached a 57 percent recovery rate as of 2003. The bad news is the recovery rate in the organics sector. While we do recover and compost 80 percent of our yard trimmings (as of 2003), food was the largest remaining component of the waste stream that had no real recovery infrastructure in place. Government was going to have to step up and do something. So we did.

LESSON #1: CLEAN YOUR PLATE (OR AT LEAST 'FORK IT OVER!')

We sat down and wrote a comprehensive organics plan based on highest and best use: food as food - what a concept! The plan had a two-track approach, the first focused on recovery for donation to food banks and the second focused on composting what remained.

Considering that Oregon has one of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the nation, this approach was a natural. The Oregon Food Bank has a network of over 750 member agencies and there is an existing infrastructure in place to collect, store and distribute surplus food. The trick was we were focusing on perishable and prepared foods and the infrastructure to handle these items was much weaker. So we put together a grant program for food rescue agencies to purchase refrigerated trucks, walk-in coolers, freezers and a myriad of other items designed to increase their ability to receive, safely handle, store and distribute perishable foods. Five years and $700,000 in grant funds later, we've helped food rescue agencies put over 9,000 tons of additional fresh food into the stomachs of Oregon's hungry. And for every dollar Metro spent, there was a $31 benefit to the region's food banks - a darn good return on investment.

After helping strengthen infrastructure, we focused on getting the word out, myth busting, and serving as the link between the potential donor and the food rescue agencies. We spent a fair amount of time and effort understanding the barriers and benefits to food donation before we structured our program. The result is Fork it Over!, an outreach program to the food industry that addresses the real and perceived barriers and benefits of donation. Our message is: it's safe, simple and the right thing to do. Safe, because Good Samaritan laws protect good faith donors. Simple, because we will set up the program and make the connections for them, or they can use the interactive website to find the food rescue agency nearest them that meets their needs. The right thing to do, because businesses contribute to the community that supports them.

Our food donation grant program has been a terrific success, so it was time to move to phase two. We thought we'd offer up a whole lot of dough to jump-start the development of the food residuals composting infrastructure locally as well. We were pretty confident that we had this thing all figured out. Then came lesson #2.

LESSON #2: MONEY CAN'T BUY YOU LOVE (OR A COMPOST FACILITY)

In 2000 we gathered up our 14 local yard trimmings composters and asked them if they were interested in taking the next step with us and upgrading their facilities to accommodate food residuals. They replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and then they followed up with a resounding … “If you pay for it!!”

We were prepared for the inevitable “it'll cost ya” hitch and in 2000 we happily issued a matching grant program that offered up to $500,000 in funds for infrastructure and equipment upgrades to build local capacity for food residuals composting. And then we waited for the expected flood of applications … and waited. You would think with 14 area yard trimmings composters we'd get more than one viable application, right? Nope.

So we revised the program, reduced the match requirement and broadened the field to include on-site food residuals systems for businesses and institutions. We also included waste haulers so they could upgrade for collection. We did some pretty cool pilot projects and installed a large-scale vermicomposting unit at a local museum, but still had no real processing capacity - nor did we seem to really have the local interest we expected.

So we tried again. Third time is the charm, right? This time the City of Portland took the lead and issued a Request for Proposals for a food residuals composting facility. Metro put up $700,000 and the City added $300,000 for a cool million. We thought we had it this time. We got through the selection process, chose a reputable vendor (Norcal Waste Systems), drafted a contract and then after one failed attempt at securing the site for the new facility, Norcal pulled out.

We gathered up our $700,000 wiped our eyes, blew our noses and went home. Ever the optimists (or idiots), we tried again! In 2003, Metro issued yet another grant, offering half a million dollars for a composting facility. And this time we got a really, really, really good bite.
Leading us to lesson #3 …

LESSON #3: DON'T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET (OR ONE GRANT PROGRAM)

We were thrilled to begin discussions with Threemile Canyon Farms, a huge dairy operation 150 miles from Portland in an arid area that was already composting over 500,000 tons of dairy manure annually. Our little bit of food residuals would be merely a blip on the radar screen! We visited the farm and were impressed by its commitment to sustainable practices despite its tremendous size.

By the fall of 2003, we had negotiated a contract and drafted a composting rate ordinance. We took everything to the appropriate committees and scheduled all the legislative hearings. Threemile Canyon went through the arduous task of months of public hearings, land use permitting and Department of Environmental Quality permitting, and the hubbub and falderal that always accompanies such things. We made the 3-hour one-way drive repeatedly to talk with local county officials and be there to answer questions at various and sundry hearings. Threemile Canyon was a terrific and patient partner. And I grew to admire the sight of tumbleweeds and respect the speed of my boss' BMW.

And then the lawyers showed up … leading to lesson #4.

LESSON #4: DON'T COUNT YOUR CHICKENS (OR YOUR COWS) UNTIL THEY ARE HATCHED
“Gosh,” our attorney said as he reviewed the contract we filed with our governing Council … “you can't go ahead with this contract. You didn't follow the right procurement practice for both composting and transportation services. You can either contract only for composting and then bid out transportation separately at this point, or you can start all over again at the beginning.”
Which leads to Lesson #5 …

LESSON #5: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT (OR AT LEAST ACCEPTABLE TO THE ATTORNEYS)

We apologized profusely to Threemile Canyon Farms and started all over at the beginning and issued an officially-sanctioned, triple reviewed, T's crossed, I's dotted, air tight and nicely bound Request for Proposals that looked remarkably like the grant program (with some legal stuff added). It was a beautiful thing. (On a fairly ironic note, the RFP was approved for release on April Fool's Day 2004.)

Thankfully, we received three very good proposals … leading us to Lesson #6.

LESSON #6: GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT (OR THOSE STUBBORN ENOUGH NOT TO GIVE UP)

While Threemile had provided a strong proposal, we were pleasantly surprised by the proposal we received from a company called Cedar Grove Composting Inc. in Maple Valley, Washington. Its primary business was composting. Cedar Grove had loads of experience with it, including urban food residuals. It already had a permitted and operating facility with another under construction, had good relationships with regulators and had proven to be the type of company that is in it for the long haul - when there were problems, they were fixed. We visited its facility and were duly impressed. Cedar Grove was terrific to work with, straightforward and communicative.
They then introduced us to Lesson #7…

LESSON #7: A PENNY SAVED IS A PENNY EARNED (OR $500,000 SAVED)

Remember Lesson #2, Money Can't Buy You Love? Well, not having to spend that money may not necessarily buy love, but it sure makes for a happy government planner!

Cedar Grove not only offered us a very reasonable tip fee for transportation and composting of the region's food residuals, it included revenue sharing on the sale of the finished product, and a commitment to build, own and operate a local facility once we reached 10,000 tons/year in organic residuals deliveries. To top it off, the company didn't want any of the $500,000 Metro offered in the RFP! In return, we would ensure the feedstock was acceptable, Cedar Grove was entitled to all organics coming through Metro facilities for five years, and we would not offer grants or loans to other facilities.

Metro signed a 5-year contract with Cedar Grove Composting on December 20, 2004. Let me tell you, December 20 was definitely a two-martini night! It was also the culmination of nine years of two steps forward and one step back and so many people saying “I'll believe it when I see it!” I could hardly believe it myself that we had a signed contract!

Relieved, I began to think “Now that all this work is finally done, what the heck will I do now?” Well, that lasted a whole three days and then I came face to face with Lesson #8…

LESSON #8. A WOMAN'S WORK IS NEVER DONE (OR AT LEAST THIS WOMAN'S ISN'T)
Just when you think it's safe to take a lunch hour, maybe even a vacation day or two, you realize that the last 10 years of your life have culminated in the completion of (drum roll please) STEP ONE!

Gee whiz, now you have to figure out how to put an actual program together and implement it. Bringing up very important Lesson #9 …

LESSON #9: IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO (OR IN OUR CASE, EIGHT)

We do a very complex dance in the Portland Metro region! The City of Portland is the largest city in the region with the majority of the food residuals generators, but it also has the most complex commercial solid waste collection system. Every other city or county in the Metro region has private haulers who have franchised collection areas they serve and the local government sets collection rates and service provision standards. Not Portland! While the residential sector is franchised, the commercial sector is free market and there are over 50 independent hauling companies doing business in the city. Portland does have the ability to mandate that businesses separate food residuals as they do with recycling, but for now the program is voluntary. This is not just for the businesses mind you, but for the haulers as well
So, how the heck do you put a program together in a highly competitive environment like this where the city doesn't set collection rates, there's no promised financial incentive, the program is voluntary for the customer and the hauler and you don't want to step on any toes while doing that tango? Veeerrrry carefully. Here are the dance steps:

City gets list of willing haulers, City puts together list of largest generators: City sends letter to small groups of businesses at a time: City hires Persuasive Tim to recruit business and set up initial meetings and notify affected hauler, Persuasive Tim and hauler visit the business and those interested are turned over to Capable Christopher from Applied Compost Consulting, Capable Christopher flies up from San Francisco to review the site layout and logistics with the customer and hauler and recommend a setup, Juggling Ginny does all the necessary scheduling and notifications, Business negotiates service frequency and cost with hauler, Business then is contacted to schedule a staff training session with Capable Christopher and delivery of containers, Hopefully, the hauler then begins collection service according to the agreed schedule, Hauler then delivers loads to Metro Central Transfer Station for a tip fee of $47.50 per ton (rather than $72 for garbage), Metro and BFI/Allied personnel (our contract operator) inspect and clean up the loads if needed, BFI/Allied reloads the acceptable organics into long-haul trailers and Metro takes care of the accounting, Cedar Grove picks up trailers, delivers to composting facility, washes and returns them, Cedar Grove composts food residuals. Keep in mind that this program is just in the very beginning stages, with only one of the 25 cities and three counties in the region participating as of yet! Which leads me to the final and perhaps most important lesson of them all….

LESSON #10: WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER (OR WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT'S BEEN)

After starting on a small scale with existing separation programs in place, we have moved far in four months. February totaled 25 tons diverted, and if the first ten days are any indication, we are on track to exceed 750 tons for the month of June 2005. Pretty impressive! Early participants include 40 Portland public elementary and intermediate schools, Clark County, Washington schools, Portland International Airport's food vendors, and airline kitchens and surrounding hotels. (We have the only airport in the country that composts its food residuals.) Now we have a wide range of restaurants and grocery chains including 100 Safeway stores, hospital cafeterias, produce warehouses and some large hotels doing a very impressive job of separation. One local chain of pubs recently reported a 70 percent reduction in their waste once they began with the composting program.

So don't despair and don't give up. If we can do it, anybody can. It may take 10 years, but remember, practice makes perfect (or at least pretty darn good)! My advice to you: clean your plate, do good work, get lots of sleep, and most importantly, listen to your mother!

Jennifer Erickson is a Senior Planner at Metro in Portland Oregon. She has been with Metro 15 years and serves as the organics program manager as well as the local government liaison for waste reduction and recycling planning.

“PORTLAND COMPOSTS!” PROGRAM UPDATE

THE PORTLAND Composts! program is going well,” e-mails Judy Crockett of the city of Portland's Solid Waste and Recycling Division in the Office of Sustainable Development, “though slowly since we have not yet made it mandatory.” As of early June, 2005, some haulers are completely involved, although a lone one is “really dragging its feet.” Continues Crockett: “Bags are a major issue for the school system, which gives us many tons a week, but we have bought biodegradable bags as a part of the pilot program. Safeway is due to come on line, which will take us very close to the number of tons needed for Cedar Grove to locate a facility down here. In fact, Cedar Grove is already taking steps to get a site permitted.”

On June 9, the Portland Oregonian reported that Cedar Grove Composting was initiating the process to permit a 20-acre site in Northeast Portland so it could stop hauling food residuals 170 miles into Washington for processing. The key question: Can the company convince neighbors its environmentally conscious process and product fit into the environment along Marine Drive? According to the newspaper, while Cedar Grove has not yet submitted a land use application to the city, the Seattle-based company has agreed to buy the land if everything goes as planned. Neighborhood leaders were recently flown to its Washington compost sites for a tour. “We want it to be a welcome thing that people see as a benefit, not just a landfill,” Cedar Grove's Portland development manager told Laura Oppenheimer of The Oregonian.

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