The Portland, Oregon metropolitan region and the city of San Jose are evaluating compostable products to accept in their commercial organics recycling programs.
BioCycle August 2012, Vol. 53, No. 8, p. 52
As the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region and the city of San Jose, California ramp up their respective organics recycling programs, putting policies in place for handling of compostable products is critical. One challenge that has become evident is the fact that which products to allow are somewhat dependent on what infrastructure, technologies and management practices are in place as well as on climate and geography.
The city of Portland launched its organics recycling program in 2005, at which time Metro — the elected regional government for the Portland metropolitan area — signed a six-year contract with Cedar Grove Composting, located two hours north in Washington state, to process all of the region’s collected organics. Cedar Grove had started its own program years ago to test the compostability of products, and since has approved more than 700 from dozens of vendors that it accepts at its facilities in Maple Valley and Everett. Cedar Grove uses the GORE Cover System aerated static pile technology, which runs at higher sustained temperatures than other composting methods, biodegrading the compostable products in an 8 week time period. Commercial customers in the Portland area who voluntarily recycle their organics — such practices will become mandatory in the city in 2013 — have grown accustomed to operating from that acceptable materials list.
The contract with Cedar Grove ended in 2011, by which time several composting facilities in the Portland region had been permitted under Oregon’s new rules to receive food waste, including Allied Waste Services’ Pacific Region Compost Facility (PRC), 60 miles south of Portland, and Recology-owned Nature’s Needs near North Plains, 18 miles to the northwest. Many of the approved products that composted readily at Cedar Grove were not breaking down completely at the two Oregon facilities. PRC and Nature’s Needs compost in open windrows, which requires more time and operate at lower sustained temperatures than the Gore System.
Meetings were held among members of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Metro, eight municipalities, four counties, commercial composters, compostable products manufacturers and other stakeholders to address the issue, and to create a list of commercially acceptable compostable serviceware items that would facilitate both food waste recovery and a high-quality, marketable end-product. “What we learned during this initial process was that much of the compostable serviceware was being screened out at the PRC facility up front and that at both facilities there was also the challenge of distinguishing what’s on the acceptable list from what is not,” explains Matt Korot, program director for Resource Conservation & Recycling at Metro. “Nature’s Needs was incorporating the [discernable] compostable material and by screening it out at the back end they were able to observe that much of these products were not fully composting in their process.” This presented the risk of adversely affecting the quality and the marketability of the compost.
“The group agreed on the problem but not the solution,” says Matt Korot, Program Director for Resource Conservation & Recycling, Metro.
“The group agreed on the problem “but not the solution,” continues Korot. When its preliminary recommendations to accept Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)-certified plant/fiber-based compostable products but not bioplastics (regardless of certification) leaked beyond the confines of the working group, “some big users of compostable products got upset, because they feared the impact on their operations if such a standard were to be put into place — which is understandable.”
Metro recently contracted the services of the Portland State University-based Oregon Consensus Program to help facilitate the guidelines process, which Korot says has been stalled for about six months. “We’re identifying stakeholders in categories from the government side to compost facilities and product manufacturers, distributors and users. We are probably going to have about 20 people.
The first phase is assessment and will be interview driven, but we can’t afford to interview everyone who has opinions. That is why we are carefully selecting a representative group. The next step will be to work toward consensus.”
Finding Their Way In San Jose
A little more than 650 miles to the south, the city of San Jose, California, is going through a similar process. In June 2011, the city signed a 15-year agreement with Zero Waste Energy Development Company (ZWED) to process its commercial organics through anaerobic digestion (AD) followed by composting (see “New Frontier For Commercial Waste In San Jose,” May 2011). At the same time, Allied Waste-owned Republic Waste Services of Santa Clara County was awarded the commercial waste collection and recycling service contract — including organics — for all San Jose buisnesses beginning July 1, 2012. The ZWED AD facility is scheduled to go online in fall 2013. In the meantime, commercial and residential organics are going to Z-Best Compost Facility, owned by Zanker Road Resource Management (a partner in ZWED). While composters that serve San Jose and outlying areas currently accept compostable serviceware, the city wants to make sure compostable materials are actually breaking down without adversely affecting the quality of the compost and overall diversion goals. As more companies making these materials come on line and as San Jose gets more aggressive about recycling food waste, it becomes ever more critical to determine the true compostability of products.
To determine which types of compostable products to accept in its organics waste stream, the city enlisted the services of Cascadia Consulting Group. “Our current role is to develop a pilot program to test protocols with Z-Best and Newby [Island Composting] and to develop a process to follow in the future,” says Hilary Near of Cascadia. “Our previous task was to investigate what other facilities have done.”
While the litmus test for initial product recommendations includes BPI certification, passing ASTM D6400/6868 compostability standards and inclusion on Cedar Grove’s list, local stakeholders recognize that what plays in Peoria doesn’t necessarily play in San Jose. For instance, Newby Island utilizes open windrows, while Z-Best uses aerated static pile technology. “The idea was to do real-world testing with one manufacturer’s full suite of compostable food serviceware,” says Near. Palo Alto-based World Centric committed to be the first food service ware manufacturer to do just that. “Their products are widely used and composted in the Bay Area,” she adds. “Both facilities will be doing controlled tests to see whether these products disintegrate or not. [World Centric] is committed to closing the loop, and we’ve been talking to them for a couple of years. It’s important that we have a committed stakeholder.”
Young says that because of the relatively low residence time in the ZWED digester, it may be inefficient to use digester capacity for compostable plastics, which would likely go directly to composting in the onsite composting tunnels, or to the Z-Best composting facility.
According to both Near and Michele Young, Organics Manager for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department, the pilot program has two main goals: to increase use of compostable products while reducing negative impacts on composting facilities and to develop solid performance data on potential replacement products for polystyrene. The timeline for the pilot project is to test from August through November, compile the data and make recommendations for changes and management by December 2012. Young says that because of the relatively low residence time in the ZWED digester it may be inefficient to use digester capacity for compostable plastics, which would likely go directly to composting in the onsite composting tunnels, or to the Z-Best composting facility.
By being fully transparent and sharing data, Cascadia and the city of San Jose hope to both gain insight and feedback as well as move the conversation forward in other communities regionally, and perhaps nationally, about how to deal with compostable serviceware in the organics waste stream.
“We want to share our testing protocols,” says Young. “Ultimately if we had a protocol that was used at facilities in the Bay Area, statewide or even nationwide, agencies would eventually come up with a list of materials that worked in almost any composting facility. This would be a great place to get to. The more facilities and materials that test in a standard way, the more we can share data, develop product standards and compare with other facilities who are testing in the same way.”
Another reason for San Jose wanting to develop a standard is to take the guesswork out of who gets invited to the game. “We want to develop a protocol to treat all potential vendors in an equal way so that when a vendor comes in with products to be considered for our compost stream, we can hand them a packet and say, ‘Here’s the process that everybody goes through for testing’ so that it’s equitable and streamlined,” explains Young. “… We’re excited and are looking forward to getting real data to use to discuss local options for responsible compostable products use and replacement of materials.”