October 22, 2008 | General

An Imperfect Process

BioCycle October 2008, Vol. 49, No. 10, p. 20
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

THIS past spring I received a nice phone call late in the day from Sego Jackson, a member of the Washington State Congress (best known to BioCycle readers for his work on the Soils For Salmon campaign in the late 1990s). He was calling to see if I would be a member of the Implementation Working Group Beyond Waste that is part of the general Washington State CAT, or Climate Action Team. If I accepted, I would be part of a team to come up with recommendations for the Governor for actions that could be taken quickly and would have a large impact on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. I smiled. He must have seen my column with the lovely picture. He knew he was asking an expert, I thought. I was happy to join the team.
The next several weeks later was all business – business now and for the rest of the summer. Forget the fact that the summer is the big opportunity here to go outside and not get mildew. This CAT was serious. The date of the first group meeting was set. We would get our tasks, meet the moderator and get underway. The time was now and the ball was rolling.
The first meeting was OK. Earlier that day, I had walked the dog through a large, shoulder high patch of grass in seed so my complacency at the meeting was partially related to my inability to really breath or open my eyes. We heard from David Allaway from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. He really had done his homework and it seemed to me that we could just do what they did, have lunch and call it a project. We also had a call into the group from Sara Hartwell from the U.S. EPA, who works with the WARM model, a tool for assessing climate impacts related to waste management methods. I was just at EPA with Sara talking about the WARM model and compost use. So I sat back and relaxed.
Then the meeting got serious. We were given a series of dates for various meetings of our CAT team and its subgroups. If you were busy and couldn’t attend, sorry the train was going full speed ahead. We had a big discussion about important issues. I got impatient that there weren’t more industry reps there but realized that I had no time or authority to start complaining. I was a member of a team with a task and that task had a deadline. I was put in charge of the Organics group. Well at least I know something about that.
Over the next two months, I came to understand that while I can tell you ad nauseam about the methane generation potential of one wet ton of food waste, I was completely ignorant of the State’s political climate, existing regulations, players of note, etc. I realized that the meetings weren’t about to wait for me even when I had work commitments that caused me to miss meetings. They wanted more progress each time. Progress not in terms of catchy phrases but progress in terms of text for legislation, or amendments to existing legislation. Or if you felt an Executive Order was more appropriate that was fine to write up and recommend too.
I was way out of my element. What I generally know how to do is give a funny chatty power point that makes people chuckle while simultaneously delivering a message. Those people then go and actually make something happen. In this case, I’ve been lucky to have a number of people who I can call who actually know how to do things.
Our group has gotten our two main recommendations to go forward, not only through the waste group but most recently to the CAT group as a whole. Here they are:
We recommended that power from anaerobic digestion be covered under feed in tariffs.
We recommended that the State subsidize compost use on agricultural lands.
I know that anaerobic digestion is a wonderful thing but my practical knowledge doesn’t extend past a few working examples. Luckily Dave Sjoding from Washington State University (WSU) came to the meetings. WSU has worked on digestion for a long time and Dave was able to suggest an appropriate price per kW. He also knew about existing state feed in tariffs for solar that could be amended to include power from anaerobic digestion and he was able to write up and explain that it was also necessary to get local utilities to transfer power as it was needed (“wheeling” provision). I was able to articulate that this would apply not only to municipal solid waste but to a range of organics, helping farmers as well as city dwellers.
For compost use subsidies, I was very fortunate to have gone with Ted Durfey of Natural Selection Farms when he met with his USDA NRCS EQIP representative about irrigation systems several years ago. I gave Ted a call, talked to the person at the USDA and found out that the State Conservation Districts work closely with the EQIP program and that compost use is tied into their central mission (conserving water and helping water quality). It also helped that one of the leads from the Waste group knew someone at the Conservation District who was more than happy to help us write this section up. I called a former student who now works for the State Department of Ecology and he and I came up with potential tonnages in counties where composting facilities are up and running.
I got into big fights with the guys in the collection group. I was sure that the way to go was to raise the tax for stuff being landfilled. Sego said that the State used to have a tax like that, but the political climate in Washington State is not favorable to tax increases. It also turns out that the collection group was writing a recommendation for a disposal ban. “Wait,” I cried, that means you won’t be able to get carbon credits. One guy from Seattle told me that you wouldn’t get participation if you didn’t have a ban. I started to read up on this and realized that this is all too new to really have a solid, single correct answer.
This process has been very humbling for me. I’ve really learned how not simple things can be. I am not sure if it has been a good process (we’ll see if our stuff goes through). We are on a tight deadline here and are trying to do the best we can with limited skills, knowledge and an incomplete tool set. The political climate or political will has to exist to make some difficult choices.
It turns out that at our last meeting, we got word that the State is unwilling to do anything that might involve raising taxes or providing subsidies. We here in Washington State are now dealing with a $3 billion deficit. So our proposal has potentially been an educational exercise. In order for any of this to work, I would argue that we need to have the political will to get past this educational exercise stage. Some things, including climate change, are worthy of that will.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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