Composting Advances in Oregon and Washington

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Over the years, different forces have served as drivers to help grow the composting industry. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the perceived landfill crisis that led to state bans on disposal of yard trimmings. Composting also has benefitted from a push to meet recycling goals, which has prompted states and local governments to go beyond yard trimmings and into such feedstocks as food residuals. Research into the benefits of using compost has helped the industry make inroads into an exciting cross section of markets, which in turn helps to divert more organic residuals into composting.

In the Pacific Northwest, compost is seen as part of long-term environmental solutions to storm water runoff and soil erosion which have contributed to pollution of the region’s waterways. These solutions directly affect the future of four salmon species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The salmon are important to the region’s economy and serve as indicators of overall environmental health. In Washington and Oregon, government agencies, environmental organizations, farmers, businesses, researchers, consumers and residents are learning that organics recycling — and compost use in particular — is key in protecting the beloved salmon.

This connection to composting is coming at a good time in the Pacific Northwest. The states of Washington and Oregon have been working on strengthening their composting infrastructure through new permitting requirements and regulatory revisions, and supporting market development initiatives. Regional, county and city governments have been active as well in funding and/or supporting organics recycling pilot programs. All levels of government and the composting industry in these states have been involved in developing solutions to the salmon crisis.

BioCycle editors have regularly reported on policy, project and program developments in the Northwest. While putting together the agenda for the upcoming BioCycle West Coast Conference (March 5-7, 2001) in Portland, Oregon, we made many additional contacts and learned about new developments. This article provides details on some of these activities, many of which will be featured at the conference.


Compost market penetration in the Pacific Northwest is expected to get a big boost from the Soils for Salmon campaign initiated by the Washington Organics Recycling Council (see “Organics Play Role In Salmon Recovery In Northwest,” April, 2000). Several one-day conferences for government officials, producers, users and potential users have been held in Washington and Oregon over the past two years. More awareness of how land use affects water quality and the overall environment has highlighted the need for healthy, stable soils, which is prompting builders, architects, landscapers, state transportation officials and others to consider the benefits of compost and mulch. “People realize, for example, that erosion from a construction project affects a stream or river nearby, which eventually impacts salmon,” says Wendy Fisher, recycling project specialist with the Washington County (Oregon) Solid Waste and Recycling Department and a member of the Composting Council of Oregon. “That’s the exciting thing of the future — looking at all of the effects of urbanization on soil and water and how industries can work toward improving the soils of the community so they have more organic matter and nutrients, and retain moisture.”

In November, landscapers and government officials were targeted at a Soils For Salmon Seminar sponsored by the city of Portland, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Metro, a regional government agency that covers Portland and 24 other cities in the surrounding area, and the Composting Council of Oregon. “Everybody likes to fish in Oregon. Many people attended and want to start using compost,” says Will Charlton, a compost resource specialist for Pro-Gro Mixes Inc. and Composting Council of Oregon board member. “They’re seeing how compost can be used in erosion control, plant mixes, residential and commercial construction, roadsides and other applications. They’re starting to understand its role in decreasing contamination and BOD (biological oxygen demand) levels in rivers.”

Washington has seen Soils for Salmon make inroads for compost on a number of different fronts. State and local officials helped convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to support soil improvement in a rule regarding exceptions to the prohibition against catching certain salmon. “In our tri-county Endangered Species Act Response Plan, Pierce, King and Snohomish counties have developed language that supports using compost and organic soil amendments for storm water management,” notes Josh Marx, organics program manager for the King County Department of Natural Resources. “At the state level, our Department of Ecology has been revising the state storm water manual with draft language about using compost as another mechanism for improving water quality. The Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team, which reports to the governor, has a new draft plan with a policy citing soil improvement as a best management practice.”

King County (home to Seattle) is working on an ordinance that would require developers to establish at least ten percent soil organic matter to a depth of eight inches by the end of construction. The county also has initiated a soil improvement public education program for residents and schools. “The public understands air and water issues pretty well, but much less is known or appreciated about the value of soil and its environmental functions,” says Marx. King and Snohomish counties also are working with their respective Master Builder Associations on encouraging use of green building principles, including soil improvement with organics.

As a result of Soils for Salmon, Snohomish County is establishing specifications and field inspection techniques for use of compost in large-scale public works, parks and road projects, and residential and commercial development. An ordinance has been passed to encourage low-impact design development, including soil improvement strategies and on-site storm water management techniques. Soils for Salmon is being incorporated into school curriculums and Master Recycler Composter programs as well.
The city of Seattle is educating residents about soil functions in a Natural Soil Building Program, an expansion of the city’s Master Composter program. A natural landscaping brochure and other outreach materials emphasize the role of soils in protecting water quality and building healthy landscapes, and a Sustainable Building Advisor Certification course that provides advanced training for designers and builders includes Soils for Salmon information. Soils training for landscaper professionals is provided as well.

“We’re moving in the right direction with a lot of momentum and excitement,” notes Marx. “Gardeners have long understood the benefits of compost. Our challenge is to go beyond those who want a good-looking tomato and build a constituency that appreciates the benefit and value of healthy soil as another way to have a healthy ecosystem. For the composting and organics recycling industry, attention to an endangered species provides an opportunity to have a bully pulpit and get the messages out. There is now a whole arena of new listeners who were not paying attention a few years ago.”


The number of composting operations in Oregon has grown from five in 1992 to 32 permitted facilities today. “The fact is that composters in the state can sell every cubic yard that they make,” says Lauren Ettlin of DEQ. “They’re looking for more feedstocks.” There are several reasons behind the tremendous growth in the composting industry. First of all, residents — especially those in the western half of the state — are very interested in gardening and protecting the environment. “They understand that utilizing compost in landscaping and in their vegetable garden is important. They care enough about learning why, getting the material, and spreading it out,” Ettlin explains. “For the same reasons, many of them are home composting.” Another reason is that Metro has made extensive efforts to promote compost production and use. The result is that a high percentage of residents in the state’s largest urban area are knowledgeable about compost.

A third factor is the timber crisis of the 1990s, which pushed wood products businesses to diversify into other areas, including composting. Finally, the state goal of 50 percent recycling by the year 2000 brought organics recovery and use to the fore, pushing some counties to initiate yard trimmings collection. “Once you get citizens to collect, you have feedstocks and composters can take advantage,” notes Ettlin. Although the deadline for attaining the goal may have been unrealistic — the state reached 36.8 percent recycling in 1999 — people were serious about trying to attain it. (DEQ is proposing that the 50 percent goal be kept, but the deadline pushed forward to 2009.)

DEQ has helped nurture the composting industry through development of a permitting system completed in July, 1997. “The biggest reason that we went into permitting facilities is odor problems,” says Ettlin. “They were developing all over western Oregon, not just the Metro area. We needed to get a handle on odors because we wanted the industry to remain stable and hopefully grow. It was important that it not go under because of poor feedstock management.” Adoption of odor minimization operational requirements in the permitting system has instilled a much higher level of confidence about composting in local planning officials, who must give land use approval before DEQ can issue a composting permit.

DEQ sponsored a permitting advisory committee, which included two on-farm and two commercial composters, that met for eight months in 1996 to develop regulations for composting. A three-tiered permitting system was developed based on environmental risk and feedstock tonnages. “When we heard input that some composting facilities would have to close if they paid the same permitting fees as landfills, we made the fees less than what other sites have to pay,” says Ettlin. “We felt this was justified by the simpler permit process and lower risk than a landfill, which means less oversight by DEQ.”

Located three hours east of Portland, the Arlington Landfill is the only composting facility in the state with a full permit, allowing it to handle more challenging feedstocks such as animal mortalities, meat and dairy products, and fish residuals. Will Charlton is working on establishing a full-permit composting facility for Pro-Gro Mixes in Tillamook County on the coast to compost cattle carcasses (see “Targeting Composted Manure For Nursery Mixes” in this issue). “Generally speaking, I’m pleased with DEQ,” he says. “Permit requirements may seem strict on the surface, but they keep the industry from giving itself a black eye.”

Once the rules were established, composters were given 18 months to submit permit applications and get the new operational standards in place. “Many composters had plans in their heads, but had to write them down,” notes Ettlin. “This required operators at a facility to talk to each other, which is very helpful. Developing odor minimization and water quality plans forced them to rethink how they were operating. Overall, the requirements necessary to get permitted helped composters to become focused.” Other mandates included developing an operations and maintenance manual, outlining how potential problems like noise, vectors, dust and litter would be minimized, and writing a facility closure plan. “Most hadn’t thought about a worst-case scenario — what will they do with feedstock that won’t get used in a product, or with a huge pile of contaminated material.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing composters in Oregon is the difficulty in siting a facility. State land use laws do not allow composters to operate on high-value farmland, which leaves little else besides steep slopes, stream beds and expensive property in an urban area. This law may be revisited, but there is reluctance to do so because of a state measure that requires the government to compensate landowners when a ruling reduces their land values. Even on low-value farmland, composters have to go through a conditional use process. Limited rural options are difficult for those composting off-site agricultural residuals because the tipping fees are lower than for residential material, which means the operations cannot afford to pay as much for land. And even though they benefit their peers by composting off-site agricultural residues, farmers who process more than supplementary feedstocks are considered commercial composters and have to get a registration or permit.


As part of its larger goal to increase recycling, the Oregon DEQ also has met with composting and recycling stakeholders on what new policies can be enacted through the legislature, rule making, and DEQ’s own methodology to further waste reduction and recycling. One of the two primary conclusions was that there needed to be a greater focus on food residuals. The other was that yard trimmings needed to be made a “principal recyclable” in areas other than the Metro region. “Our state law says the DEQ can designate items as principal recyclable materials,” Ettlin explains. “In the given wastesheds in which those materials are listed, there must be the opportunity for citizens to recycle them. Right now, things like glass and metal are principal recyclables. If the list is expanded to yard trimmings, officials in those wastesheds will have to figure out how to set up recycling programs for them, and composters in those areas will have more feedstocks.”

The DEQ has $250,000 available for recycling grants, but organics projects share that pot with a number of other materials. More significant is the work done by the nine DEQ solid waste technical staff members who assist composters throughout the state. “In the permitting process, they call the county and say ‘You’ll be getting a request for land use approval from a composter — do you have any questions about composting?’ and talk about what is going on at the site,” says Ettlin. “DEQ also put together a fact sheet on composting for cities and counties evaluating land use. The idea that composting facilities are the same as landfills is still prevalent, but perspectives are changing.” The work has paid off in getting most composters through the site approval process.

As directed by the Oregon Waste Policy Leadership group, DEQ recently communicated with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) about working together to use more recovered materials on Oregon’s roadways. DOT has been increasing its use of compost for erosion control. Some other agencies have been buying compost as part of the state’s purchasing guidelines that favor recycled materials.


An estimated 95 percent of yard trimmings generated in the Portland metropolitan region is recovered through home composting and collection and dropoff programs, according to Metro, the regional government agency. Home composting and vermicomposting outreach have attracted high levels of participation — over 60,000 composting bins have been distributed to residents over the last five years, including 9,000 sold for $25 each in a weekend sale last year. Approximately 130,000 tons of yard trimmings were composted, mulched or grasscycled on-site in 1998. (One of four single-family households composts food scraps, with a total of 11,000 tons processed in 1998.) All jurisdictions in Metro’s area have curbside yard trimmings pickup programs; most are weekly and the others are biweekly. In 1998, 189,000 tons of yard trimmings were set out by residents and businesses, of which 79 percent was collected for composting. Marketing of the compost produced by these feedstocks is strong, helped by Metro’s Earth-Wise quality assurance and marketing program (see “Certifying Compost To Increase Markets,” June, 2000).

In 1999, Metro conducted a review of its regional solid waste management plan, which provides a framework for the next ten years of recycling, according to Jennifer Erickson, senior solid waste planner with Metro’s Waste Reduction, Planning and Outreach Division. It concluded that the residential and multifamily recycling sectors were flourishing, but recycling in the organics, construction and demolition debris, and commercial areas was lagging behind expected interim goals. Intergovernmental work teams formed to initiate programs in each of these areas. The organics group looked at three strategies: waste prevention, donation and diversion.

An accompanying article in this section, “Portland Tests Strategies To Divert Commercial Organics,” provides details on some of Metro’s food residuals management programs, including the progress made with food donation initiatives. In addition, Metro commissioned a market study on animal feed that was completed last month. It compiled information on the number of operations within 100 miles of the Metro region, their capacity and what kind of food is processed. Metro also has conducted a study of what media are most effective to convey organics recycling messages to businesses. Another study involved two interns interviewing staff and management at 96 businesses. They watched how food moved through the companies and tracked what proportions of residuals were created by ordering too much, kitchen preparation, plate scrapings, etc. “The point was to see where food waste was being generated so we knew what types of programs would work for different businesses,” says Erickson. The next step is analysis of sell-by dates and their relationship to food donation.

A new Metro program is making $600,000 available to help yard trimmings composters or new processors turn food residuals into viable products. A few area composters have expressed interest in adding food residuals to their mix via an in-vessel processing component. “We’re not interested in financing and building our own processing facility,” says Erickson. “We’re more interested in helping the private sector through grant funds, assistance in permitting and helping get material to them.” In 1998, of the 171,000 tons of food residuals generated by residents and businesses, two percent were collected for composting as part of pilot projects. Metro also is willing to make its two transfer stations available for staging, and if necessary, preprocessing of compostables.

In addition, the city of Portland is considering revisions to its sewer charges that would discourage large businesses from putting food residuals in the sewer system. These wastewater strength fees would help push large generators toward beneficial reuse.


Another area of vibrant composting activity in Oregon is the Washington County Cooperative Program, which covers the 350,000 residents of the county’s 11 cities and its unincorporated areas. Yard trimmings collection began in 1994 with a total of 7,234 tons. Volume rose to 33,491 tons in 1997, then up to 40,925 tons last year as more cities started collection programs. There are four permitted composting facilities in the county, including Northwest Environmental and Recycling in Cornelius and Nature’s Needs in unincorporated Washington County, that accept vegetative food residuals. In addition, there are a number of yard trimmings dropoff centers that do not process on-site.

“From my discussions with several operators in the county, there is a need for greater expansion,” notes Fisher. “Markets are increasing for finished compost, and they want to process more material.” Getting more organic residuals to composters also would help the county and its regional planning partners — Clackamas and Multnomah counties, and Metro — to reach their recycling goal of 52 percent, which will require that an additional 52,000 tons/year of food waste be recycled.

One answer for both composters and recycling officials in Washington County may be food residuals, if a new pilot project is successful. Five hundred Hillsboro households in two areas began adding vegetative food residuals — nondairy and nonmeat processing, preconsumer and postconsumer food — to yard trimmings containers in December as part of a six-month trial funded by Washington County and the city. “We provided ten-liter kitchen containers to them as an incentive and to provide storage capacity,” says Fisher. “Stickers on the side say what materials can be put in the Ameri-kart yard debris container and what can not.” Portland State University researchers will compare the weights of those trash and yard trimmings containers with containers in two control areas that have similar demographics. Contamination levels and the ratio of food residuals to yard trimmings also will be determined. The organics will be temporarily stored at Best Buy, a yard debris depot in Hillsboro, and then taken to a composting facility for processing.

“If the pilot program works, we’ll go county-wide,” says Fisher. “We have the infrastructure in place to take additional residential waste, and eventually commercial material. Hopefully, we also will get a processor to take nonvegetative (meat, dairy, etc.) waste in the future.”

Fisher has worked with various facilities on permit changes to allow processing of vegetative food residuals. “The composition of (this) vegetative material is often not much different than typical yard debris,” she explains, “especially if there’s a load of grass sitting in a can for a week — you’ll have a lot more potential problems with odor and nuisances at a composting facility in that case than with a load of lettuce. But some jurisdictions weren’t looking toward the future when they wrote facility permits, and were very specific in what they allow. The facilities themselves at the time were only saying they wanted to compost yard debris. The challenge is to educate the players involved that facilities should be allowed to process vegetative materials.” Cornelius and Hillsborough are two cities that have made such permitting modifications, as has unincorporated Washington County.


In 1999, an estimated 450,000 cubic yards of compost were produced by Washington’s permitted processors, which today number about 25, according to Holly Wescott, compost specialist with the Washington Department of Ecology. But while the volume of compost produced is at a good level, constraints on composters have stunted development of new facilities in Washington, according to Jerry Bartlett, general manager of Cedar Grove Composting in Seattle. Obtaining permits is difficult and finding appropriate sites close to yard trimmings generation points even more so. “The further away you are from material, the more it costs to obtain and compost it,” he says. “Yet those sites are easier to get permitted. The closer you are to a high-density area, the harder it is to get permitted.”

While Oregon’s DEQ is the permitting authority in that state, county health departments interpret state law to regulate waste on the local level in Washington. The different interpretations by these departments have been a problem, according to Wescott, who is part of the group modifying regulations to place compost sites in a distinct category from other solid waste facilities. “The goal of the whole rule revision for the past couple years has been to get consistency statewide while also respecting local conditions that create differences in solid waste handling,” she says.

The state is making its “minimal functional standards” more consistent and stringent for existing and future composters. This will provide more direction to county health departments and standardize requirements among the counties. It also will make it more costly to obtain permits. “A lot of those standards going into effect this year have already been applied by county health departments — storm water management standards, impervious surface standards, compost quality testing, and controls on odor emission,” says Bartlett. “We (Cedar Grove) support all of these because we meet those standards and have spent a lot of money doing it. In our opinion, it’s leveling the playing field.”

The issue of permitting exemptions has sparked the most input, says Wescott. The current rule, written in 1985, gives an exemption to “single-family farm composting,” the definition of which is left open to interpretation. “We didn’t have a composting industry then,” Wescott explains.

“The rule was meant to allow farms to do what they ought to be doing — return organic matter to the soil without having to get a permit as a solid waste handling operation. There is a lot of potential for really good composting projects, especially in western Washington, where urban and suburban development are encroaching on rural areas, but we haven’t had the regulatory framework to support them.” For example, a farm cannot keep its single-family farm status under current regulations if it accepts grocery vegetative and cardboard residuals.

Only a few farms have gone through the permitting process to take municipal or self-haul yard trimmings, which are composted with their own dairy manure. Dairy farms present an interesting opportunity for composting. Three years ago, the state legislature passed the Dairy Nutrient Management Act with the support of the Washington State Dairy Federation. Dairies without enough land to apply manure at an agronomic rate have difficulty in complying with the nutrient management requirements. “This is where composting could be a useful tool to get excess manure off the farm,” says Wescott. “How to best regulate that is the biggest question. In most cases, these dairies would not be bringing in outside material, but would be selling some of their product. Giving them a break could put commercial composters at a disadvantage, although currently, they are all finding markets for their product.”

A major goal of the rule revisions is to bridge the gap between the solid waste and agricultural arenas. “When we talk about composting, public agencies, public works departments, solid waste districts, planning agencies and health departments have been very separate from the work of agriculture in most counties,” notes Wescott. “Farmers deal with the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service), agricultural engineers and others who are not part of the solid waste network. That’s been a challenge on both sides. For example, some farmers don’t realize that materials like manure are defined as solid waste because that never has been an issue of concern to them. The more we get urban and rural areas that are close in proximity, and also closer in recognizing the issue of sustainability, the more the agricultural and solid waste worlds must come together.”

A three-tiered permitting system with two exempt categories would be established under the proposed regulatory approach. The first tier would be exempt from permitting and include home composting and processing small volumes of materials such as yard trimmings, wood scraps, and grocery residuals, including cardboard. The second tier would allow somewhat larger quantities and require notification of health departments. These composters also would be exempt from permitting, allowing a compromise between farmers who want to process a small amount of off-site material and composters who do not want unfair exceptions made. “I get just as much heat on both ends of the spectrum: Ag folks who are adamant about not wanting to be dragged into the regulatory framework, and on the other side, folks promoting composting by municipalities and private companies, who say ‘if we have to do it, you have to do it also,’” says Wescott. Both exempt categories would require operators to use best management practices for avoidance of surface and groundwater pollution, nuisance odors and vectors. The third would encompass more difficult feedstock volumes and greater quantities. The public comment period ended in January and adjustments are being made to the rule in preparation of a formal draft.

Even with improved regulations, siting can be a difficult endeavor due to citizen resistance, which obviously influences local officials’ decisions. “It’s hard to get support for a new compost facility,” says Bartlett. “People have a general NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opinion. The one thing some counties are supporting is moderate-sized facilities, which they believe will be more publicly acceptable than larger operations.”


Despite a lack of new facilities, the composting industry in Washington is by no means stagnant. On-farm composting has seen a healthy boost of activity, and yard trimmings represent an emerging opportunity. “Until recently, few counties had yard waste burning bans and there was no marketplace,” explains Bartlett. “Now with burn bans coming into effect in outlying counties, there will be more of a demand for composting facilities.” Whether composting facilities will spring up to serve all of the areas enacting bans remains a question, since the high cost of regulatory compliance discourages establishment of small processors.

King County produces 290,000 tons of horse manure and bedding each year — a volume about equal to its food residuals and greater than yard trimmings or biosolids.

Using Department of Ecology funding, King County is fostering more small-scale composting to handle this manure and protect water quality. “We’re trying to expand composting capacity in the region and diversify the industry,” says Marx. “The approach is to promote the on-farm composting model. There’s a medium-size dairy in Snohomish County that receives yard wastes, composts them with manure, then puts half of the compost back in the field and sells half. It’s good for agriculture because it helps keep the farmer in the black and it’s good for soils. We want to get more of those on line.”

Last year, King County began sponsoring training to small and mid-sized farms on how to compost using aerated static piles. It also provides assistance with obtaining permits to receive outside feedstocks. Twenty farms received training last year, and a few are in the process of getting permits. This year, the scope is being extended to other large generators of yard trimmings, such as landscapers, golf courses and school districts. In addition, curbside collection of manure for composting is being offered in some areas as part of a pilot project set to begin in February. Participants are charged $100/month for weekly pickup of a two-cubic yard container that is dropped off at a composting site.


As suggested by its permitting issues, one of Washington’s main obstacles to further composting development is creating an infrastructure to recycle food residuals. “We don’t have the facilities to process that material, and in order to get them in areas where we have the highest populations, there will have to be substantial controls because of odor issues,” says Wescott. “Having a more clarified system of small-scale exemptions could help meet the need.” The other major concern, she says, is standards for compost quality, particularly stability. “Some competing processors are making it quick and cheap, and others are providing quality product,” she adds. “I think getting some standardized test methods that health departments can use to test material will be important. I’m looking forward to tackling the issue; we’ll use the U.S. Composting Council’s Test Methods for the Examination of Composting and Compost.”

Overall, Bartlett believes the future is bright for composting in Washington. Cedar Grove has seen demand for its products rise in each of the last three years. Environmental and regulatory agencies are working toward getting more compostables into the system, and compost use is favored by those supporting salmon recovery and environmental protection.

Wescott cites three factors behind Washington’s embrace of compost. “One reason is the trend toward the whole sustainability concept,” she says. “Composting is the ultimate in closed-loop recycling. Another is elimination of alternatives to deal with these materials. Burning has become more restricted due to air quality concerns. Food processing waste that may have been used for animal feed does not have that avenue available anymore. There’s also been a recent reduction in the number of rendering plants, which has increased interest in composting animal offal and parts. The third reason for interest in compost is the increase in awareness of soil health and the benefits of organic matter. The concept of soil health is popping up in a lot of different regulatory frameworks — storm water management, land use planning and low-impact development.”

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