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Curbside Composting: No One Said It Would Be Easy

November 17, 2014

Since Seattle and Portland began offering curbside composting, the cities have faced challenges from foul odors, lack of participation and plastic contamination.

Seattle and Portland are working to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste by offering curbside composting. But no one said it would be easy. The cities have faced challenges from foul odors, lack of participation and plastic contamination.

In Seattle, officials have found even with curbside pickup, residents are only putting a fraction of city's food waste into the compost. The city has new rules that make composting mandatory and enforceable. That means residents will be fined a dollar each time food waste makes up 10 percent or more of what’s in their trash can.

Tim Croll, solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities, said without the new rules, the city won't reach its recycling goals.

"We really have to do something different," he said. "We can't just sit out there and root more, encourage people more."

Meanwhile, Cedar Grove, which handles most of Seattle's curbside compost, had to add a second screening process to remove bits of plastic leftover in the finished compost. The plastic comes from lots of everyday mistakes: Forgetting to remove fruit stickers or failing to take the rotting lettuce out of the plastic bag before tossing it in the compost bin.

Susan Thoman, spokeswoman for Cedar Grove, said all those mistakes drive up the cost of composting.

"All those things accumulate and add up in our system, and all those things add a lot of cost, time and resources," she said.

The stench of rotting food waste can also be a problem. In Portland, the smell is the reason food waste from many businesses no longer goes to a nearby suburban composting facility. Instead, it now goes to a methane digester in Junction City, Oregon, about 100 miles south of Portland. But the digester can't take cardboard or compostable plastic, so the rules for what businesses put in their compost bins had to change. Watch the video above to see how one business is adapting to those new rules.

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