SOLDIERS OF WASTE
Composting our food scraps across the city
STORY BY DEANNA UUTELA • PHOTOS BY TODD COOPER
They answer to “Mr. Worm,” “Composting Queen” and “Recycle Bin.” They would gladly spend hours talking to you about the digestion and mating patterns of a red worm. If you invite them over, you might catch them digging through your garbage for excess coffee grounds or kitchen waste.
|Jeremiah Trygsland, SCF crew
|Sarah Grimm (right) and volunteer set up compost bins
They are the soldiers of compost: the few, the proud, the truly organic. They wear their soiled shirts like a badge of honor. Whether they work for the city, a business, a program or just on their own, these men and women are dedicated to diminishing the landfills and cleaning up the streams, one bin at a time.
Anne Donahue has worked as a compost specialist for the city of Eugene for seven years. She has witnessed an increase in the landfill mass with each passing year and has contributed to the research done to determine how much food waste goes into our streams and how much is dumped into the landfills. The research has concluded that more than one-third of the waste generated in Eugene is organic matter. Food, paper and wood waste are the top three components in the landfill: Yard debris makes up 5.5 percent, food waste 13.6 percent and wood 15.1 percent.
“Most people don’t realize that landfills have a life capacity, and once they are full a new site has to be found, and that is not as easy as you think it is,” says Donahue. Lane County Waste Reduction Specialist Sarah Grimm anticipates Lane County’s landfill being at capacity around the year 2087, but she adds that the life expectancy could be extended if we try harder to control our waste in the present. “Last year the landfill took in over 262,000 tons of trash,” Grimm says. “For me the issue is less about capacity and more about making the best use of the items coming into the landfill. That means more recycling of everyday products — and composting of agricultural products.”
Without a citywide food waste composting program, the Eugene Waste Management team has had to rely heavily on grants and individual efforts to decrease the waste problem. “Food waste is more difficult to compost than yard waste,” Donahue says. “Revisions would need to be made to the current rules and regulations before a citywide program could be initiated.”
Until a program can be established, the city supports the efforts of grassroots programs such as the composting demos and classes given by the OSU Extension Service, the coffee grounds diversion programs, the Sustainable Disposal at Eugene Schools project and the composting done at community gardens.
There are currently around six community gardens in Eugene. One of the largest gardens is the Skinner City Farm (SCF), which has 18 individual plots and six nonprofit plots. The SCF was established in 1998 by Eugene Parks Planning and a core group of naturalists and urban farmers.
Jan Vandertuin, who initially helped develop and now helps run the garden, is proud and encouraged by the work they are doing. “The garden is a completely citizen-driven project that provides food for the community and revamps the infrastructure of the city,” says Vandertuin.
The most exciting part, he believes, is getting the community and government working together in a project that helps to build a stronger bond between the two infrastructures. SCF has expanded its eco-friendly relationships even further to involve restaurants and youth.
In 2004, with the help of volunteers and students from the Center for Appropriate Transport (CAT), SCF built a large wooden worm bin at its site. The volunteers formed relationships with local restaurants and food producers to allow them to pick up coffee grounds and kitchen waste once a week. The waste is then fed to the worms to make compost, which is later applied to the garden plots.
“We use our CAT bikes to pick up the waste. About 20 to 25 five-gallon buckets are picked up per week,” Vandertuin says. “We don’t charge the restaurants anything to take their food waste, and we even provide them with the buckets they need to hold the material.” But it’s great for the gardens, he says. “Coffee grounds in particular are really good for the compost — the worms love it!”
Catherine Reinhart from Sweet Life bakery says the staff members were happy when CAT approached them and asked if they wanted to compost. “Our establishment believes in sustainable living, and this is just one more step in being more environmentally friendly. CAT makes it so easy for us because they are consistent in their pick up and come often.”
But the composting process hasn’t been without some trouble. “At first it was a pain because we were tight on space, and we had to create a separate area just for the compost buckets,” says Reinhart. “But after finding space and training the employees, it has become as simple as recycling.”
Laughing Planet employee Jeremy Deguc believes that a lot of restaurants in town don’t compost because of lack of awareness and because it takes some work to get established. “Separating the food waste can be messy. It attracts flies and may smell,” Deguc says. “It is difficult because the city doesn’t have a composting program available to restaurants, so we have to do it on our own. I just appreciate the soldiers in town that have helped my establishment learn to compost.”
SCF in partnership with CAT has also gotten youth involved in composting. The Skinner City Farm Youth Education Program is an agriculturally based program for youth 12 to 19. The lessons are all hands-on and teach a variety of subjects, but one in particular is sustainable practices. At SCF, the students helped to build and design the onsite compost bin as well as learn all about the process of composting.
CAT student Nolan Chase, 16, started going to the Network Charter school in the 7th grade. He used a computer program at CAT that helped him design part of the compost bin. “I learned a lot about composting from the program, and the importance of recycling from a community standpoint. I was taught that farming and gardening take the nutrition out of the soil, and compost material helps give some of that nutrition back.” He says that there were times when he thought he would rather be doing anything else than the hard physical labor required of him, but in the end he is glad to have those skills.
Other schools in Eugene are also being educated on sustainable living. In 2000, the city of Eugene was awarded a grant from the EPA’s Sustainable Development Challenge Grant program that could be used towards installing onsite composting at several Eugene schools. The Eugene schools project installed Earth Tubs, a large in-vessel composting unit capable of processing cafeteria food discards, at six Eugene schools. The teachers and students were shown how to separate, transport, process, test and eventually utilize the food scraps that were previously a wasted resource (and headed for the landfill).
Five of the six Earth Tub schools compost everything: meat products, paper napkins, paper condiment cups and fruits and vegetables. Milk is excluded in all cases because of the likelihood that milk in the tub would cause odor problems. One school has chosen not to add meat products to their tub even though the tubs are capable of handling up to 10 percent meat products.
It took each school a couple of trial runs before learning which sorting system worked best for them. At Kelly Middle School, the custodian created an efficient sort station that allows for the recycling of paper, food waste, milk cartons, cans and juice containers. The lunchroom custodian oversees the recycling station. Patterson Elementary School focused on food waste and milk carton recycling. Students take turns overseeing the sort line, with older students providing help and encouragement to the younger students. Sort buckets are elevated so students can easily place food and milk cartons into their proper containers.
The Oregon State University Extension Service went into the schools and talked to the students about the benefits of composting. Cindy Wise, compost specialist volunteer coordinator with the Lane County office of the Extension Service, believes that the best way to judge the level of compost awareness is to talk to kids. “Ten years ago none of the kids in the schools knew what composting was; today when you go into schools over half of the students not only know what composting is but are composting in their homes. That is very encouraging.”
The Extension Service runs a composting program sponsored by the city, an outreach educational program to reduce landfill waste. The service gives 10 free composting demos each year; compost specialists walk people through composting basics, common problems and how to choose a compost bin that fits their individual needs.
“There has been a large interest in composting from gardeners in particular. The last demo we gave had over 100 attendees,” Wise says. “I have seen the landfill and recycling conditions in other countries and states, and the people of Lane County should feel proud and lucky to have the services offered here.”
For those people who are wanting a little more tutelage on the topic, OSU offers a Master Composter course. The program is open to anyone interested in composting, and it is free in exchange for 20 hours of volunteer work. The program has had attendees from Albany, Corvallis and even Portland.
Eugene resident Dave Kafis, who wears a “Mr. Worm” hat, took the Master Gardening/Composter class in 2001. He has since composted for FOOD for Lane County, the River House community garden and grocery stores around town. He has his own garden plot at River House, and he is in charge of all of its community plots. Using his own truck, he picks up waste from Market of Choice every morning and coffee grounds from several coffee places around town. He ends up with about 6,000 pounds of veggie waste a month and 1,000 pounds of coffee grounds, which all gets composted and eventually added to the gardens.
“It feels good to make something beneficial out of waste that would normally just be thrown away. Not only that, but using the compost here in our own community gardens keeps it all local,” Kafis explains. “The whole process is a continuous cycle of putting back into the soil what you take.”
He recommends that everyone try composting, whether they have a garden or not. “It is easy to compost and really not that time consuming. I recommend that people who want to recycle but don’t have a place to compost it try a worm bin. It doesn’t take up much space, is really clean and you don’t have to spend much time on it because the worms do all the work. A neighbor, local farm or one of the community gardens would be more than happy to take the finished product off your hands.”
In 1999, in an attempt to encourage businesses to divert organic matter into valuable compost material, the city of Eugene installed an Earth Tub at the Market of Choice located at 2858 Willamette St. Caith Wiles, a produce clerk at Market of Choice, has overseen the process for the past seven years. The store is composting close to 150 pounds of produce per day, and Wiles says they are using the compost system close to its full potential.
“I would estimate that we compost about 50 percent of our kitchen waste, which doesn’t sound like much but is considerably higher than most grocery stores in the state,” Wiles explains.
After the initial training provided to employees by the city, it took a while for the separation process to run smoothly, but “we now have a steady, effortless system and a dedicated crew,” says Wiles. The store gives all of its compost material to customers. “We give our compost away for free to whoever wants it. Most of the people who end up asking for it are gardeners, farmers or volunteers who work for a community garden,” says Wiles. “It is a great process that wouldn’t be possible if not for the efforts of city officials.”
Donahue wants to keep those efforts going. “Even though the city is doing all we can within our limits to reduce waste, we still get calls from people everyday asking us to do more,” she says. People ask about when the city is going to establish a citywide commercial composting program like Portland’s. “It took Portland a long time to get to the place they are now with composting at restaurants,” Donahue says. “I would love to see Eugene go the same route but also one day include residential food waste pickup, but it will be a few years before that can happen.”
Portland, like Eugene, is not able to have residential curbside pickup yet, but the city does have commercial food composting available to restaurants and some businesses, including the Portland International Airport. The same trucks used to pick up trash and yard debris are used to make “food waste-only” runs. The food, paper and yard debris are then taken to a Washington facility, Cedar Grove Composting, where the company uses it to make and sell compost in the Northwest. Currently, there is no approved composting facility in the Portland metropolitan area that can accept all the types of food waste collected in this program.
Most of the limitations placed on local composting facilities such as Rexius and Lane Forest Products have to do with odor and sanitation issues. “The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) allows facilities to compost any green feed stock but restricts any non-green feed stock like meat or dairy products because there are not any facilities up to code in Oregon to take that kind of waste,” explains Bob Barrows of DEQ. “For the past five years we have been working on changing the requirements for facilities. Once the changes are made, the facilities will be able to sufficiently house kitchen waste from residents and businesses.” That will take another year, he says.
Rexius is looking forward to one day soon being able to house all forms of compost material, says Jack Hoeck, vice president of production, but until then the company will continue to compost yard debris and introduce more compostable products into the community.
“Rexius has worked with many events around town, Art and the Vineyard and the UO Street Fair, providing compostable kitchenware for event attendees — forks, cups, spoons and plates. I am excited about compostable foodwares because I think the future of composting will involve these products,” says Hoeck.
In the Northwest alone, several companies distribute compostable food ware items and supplies, including Biodegradable Food Service, LLC in Bend. All products are biodegradable and compostable, non-toxic, odorless, heat tolerant and water-resistant. Depending on the company, the utensils might be made from corn starch, sugarcane, renewable plastics or reclaimed fiber.
One of the largest events in Lane County went completely compostable this year. At the Oregon Country Fair, the establishment used only biodegradable and compostable dishware, in an attempt to get to a goal of zero waste.
“You would be surprised, but the compostable products are about the same price as buying plastic utensils,” says Hoeck. “It is actually very reasonable, and at large events the products have done wonders to reduce the large amount of waste that would have otherwise just been dumped into the landfill.”
Whether Eugene gets a citywide composting program or not, people like Donahue, Vandertuin, Kafis and all the other composting soldiers throughout Lane County will still be out there spreading the word and teaching the next generation of future composters.
“I don’t think that the city really needs to establish a food waste pickup program,” says “Mr. Worm” Dave Kafis. That’s because others are taking it on: “It is up to the community and individuals to step up and be active in finding their own resources.”
If you are interested in composting but don’t know how to start, here are some resources.
For information on composting basics, how to get started, uses for compost and information on compost classes, visit the City of Eugene website at www.eugenerecycles.org or the Oregon State University extension service at www.extension.oregonstate.edu
The OSU extension service is also available to answer composting questions on their compost hotline at (541) 682-7320, or you can email at firstname.lastname@example.org
TYPES OF BINS
Worm Bins — Worm composting is unique because it uses food scraps only and no yard waste. It is ideal for people with very small yards or no yard. Worm composting bins can be made in any size or can be purchased. A successful worm bin will not smell, can be harvested every few months and can be kept indoors or outdoors.
Heaps — This is the cheapest form of composting and is great if you have a moderate to large area to locate your heap. This system can be problematic if there are animals like raccoons, deer or dogs that are likely to scavenge the pile. A heap or open pile should be covered in the rainy season.
Hoops — This type of bin is inexpensive and can be made out of wire and stakes or bought as an adjustable plastic enclosure, with or without a lid. Hoops are enclosed and are tidier than a heap and can be moved and covered easily but are generally not animal resistant. Some hoops are adjustable.
In-vessel — Composting takes place inside a building or a container with forced aeration and mechanical turning, for example, an Earth Tub. These systems have high capital costs and require skilled labor to maintain. There are advantages to in-vessel composting: it’s faster, requires less labor and is less likely to have problems with flies or odors. In-vessel systems can produce compost in just a few weeks.
One Bin System — A one bin system can be square, circular or cone shaped and can be commercial or homemade. Most commercial bins have lids and ventilation and may be animal resistant. These bins are good for smaller yards and areas with animals. Bins aid in moisture and heat retention. Many people prefer to have an enclosed bin because it is more attractive. However, they can be hard to turn and harvest.
Multi Bin System — This is a great system for a household or community space generating a significant amount of waste. This system is efficient, allowing you to have three working piles at different stages of decomposition, and it is easy to turn and harvest. This style bin can be made animal resistant.
Tumbler or Spinner — These self-contained barrels, drums or balls rotate for easy mixing and fast decomposition. They are more expensive than other systems, but can be more convenient because they are easier to turn. These bins are fine for small spaces and are usually animal resistant.
This information comes from the Santa Cruz County Home Composting Program.
ITEMS TO COMPOST
Fruit and vegetables
Coffee grounds & tea filters
DO NOT COMPOST
Weeds with seeds
Invasive weeds like quack grass and morning glory
Grease, cooking oil or oily foods
Meat or fish