Food pulper helps reduce landfill load

ASTORIA — The Tongue Point Job Corps Center goes through a lot of food during a single meal.

Around 550 people travel through the center's cafeteria and they generate a lot of trash. From the leftover food scraps to napkins and paper plates, each meal results in five to six 32-gallon garbage cans of waste.

But thanks to a food pulper that was installed in July in Tongue Point's dish room, the mountain of organic waste created each day has almost disappeared.

"Matilda," as the kitchen staff has fondly started calling the Somat Super 60 Food Pulper, grinds up food, plastic utensils, napkins and paper plates, creating three or four bags of garbage per day, as opposed to 18 to 20.

"You would be amazed to see this in action," said Tita Montero, business and community liaison for the center. "It takes the waste of 600 people and shrinks it unbelievably."

The pulper has been just one step on reducing the amount of garbage the center accumulates. Full-blown recycling of almost every imaginable material is also done, but in terms of having the biggest impact, minimizing food waste is the most significant.

"Work-wise and labor-wise there is a big savings," said Jean Matheson, who works in the Tongue Point kitchen. "But certainly in terms of what hits the landfill, it's a huge impact."

That's because food waste accounts for 15 percent of all garbage. According to an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality study, Oregonians dispose of upwards of 477,000 tons of food each year. When you take just household waste, organics make up about one-quarter of the waste stream.

"Food waste is probably the most problematic thing landfills are dealing with right now," said Laura Leebrick, government and corporate affairs coordinator for Western Oregon Waste.

The issue with organic materials breaking down in landfills, contaminating ground water and expelling methane gas has been well documented. Organic waste contains a lot of liquid and when mixed with chemicals and other water in a landfill, it creates a toxic product called "leachate."

Organics are just a small part of the overall makeup of the liquid, but leachate is something every landfill must control by law. Tarps cover waste to prevent rain from trickling in, but it still happens.

The other problem, and to some the more serious one, is the production of methane caused by food and other organic materials breaking down in a landfill. The material gets trapped with no access to oxygen and what results is a cloud of methane. With current technology, the amount landfills capture before it's released into the atmosphere is a lot higher than it was even 10 years ago, but some still escapes.

Now, the push is to entirely divert food waste and other organics from the waste stream. In a landfill, the material sits and rots away. However, there are more beneficial uses for the millions of tons of food Americans get rid of every year.

"Food going into a landfill has no intrinsic value," Leebrick said. "Take it out and it has one."

One way old food can be put to good use is by composting it. Paul Yamamoto, regional manager for compost facilities in California and Oregon for Recology, a waste management company based in San Francisco, said the benefits of taking all of our organic waste and creating compost are high.

"It's great because it's true recycling," Yamamoto said. "You're taking that material and returning it to the soil. It's a great sustainable cycle."

Oregon DEQ said there are 55 facilities in Oregon that have permits to compost commercially and the process breaks down everything from fruit to dairy to meat. The food is mixed in with yard waste, such as grass clippings. Yamamoto said most current composting facilities use a process called negative-forced aeration process that draws air into the pile, eliminating a large chunk of the odor while speeding up decomposition.

The lengthy process, which can take a couple of months, yields a product that can be used for a variety of projects. In California, Recology's facilities sell its compost to vineyards, organic farmers and landscaping companies and a few facilities in Oregon are starting to do the same.

Organic farmers are also taking to composting their own food waste and old crops to save money. But on the coast, away from urban centers, it's a bit more tricky, said Leebrick. Because of things like transportation costs, she said it wouldn't be very smart to take food waste from Clatsop County to the nearest composting facility in North Plains.

"Feed stock needs to come locally or you waste too much in energy," she said. "Unless it's produced and processed in a 50 mile radius it doesn't pencil out."

WOW does have a composting plant in its service area, but not on the coast. Currently, all yard waste in Clatsop County is taken to Trails End Recovery in Warrenton. Its staff does limited composting on site, but if the county were to start diverting food waste, a new site would have to be found.

So how does food waste get from the table to a place where it can be of benefit? Habit is to just dump the extra mashed potatoes into the garbage with all your other trash, but programs are springing up all over Oregon to deal with it.

In Corvallis and Salem, curbside collection of food waste is offered and residents just have to put it in with their yard debris. By separating the compostable organics, garbage companies have pulled back to every other week collection for dry waste and collect the yard/food waste every week.

There is also a pilot program in the Portland area that is doing the same thing for residents, but commercial sites are still the largest creators of food waste. Hospitals, schools, grocery stores and restaurants produce dumpsters of waste and waste companies offer pick up.

Bob Barrows, lead contact for composting permits at Oregon DEQ, said food from these commercial sites can be diverted into two streams: edible and waste.

"There is food waste that is edible," Barrows said. "That could go to needy people. We have to maximize how we reduce and reuse. That's the biggest thing to me."

But while food waste collection in urban areas is progressing at a rapid pace (Barrows said Eugene will start collecting in the near future), things in rural areas are lagging, said Leebrick. While Recology boasts a 75 percent recovery rate of reusable things from the waste stream, WOW in Clatsop County is around 35 percent. And although that is a solid number, lack of diverse facilities near towns in the county where material can be taken is the number one issue.

"There is a whole set of concerns when you look at separating from straight garbage," Leebrick said, who added that the transfer station in Astoria is too small to handle additional operations such as composting."

In Tillamook County, officials are faced with the same issues, as waste is transferred to a landfill outside Corvallis. They are taking a creative approach to solve the issue, however, and have already done preliminary work to find a solution for dealing with food waste.

"I would love to wave a magic wand and offer all the things that customers in large urban areas have," said Jennifer Purcell, Tillamook County's solid waste coordinator. "But that's a long way off. We have hundreds of miles of rural roads, so for our haulers to manage multiple waste streams isn't feasible right now."

As part of a feasibility study to deal with animal mortalities in the county, the county is taking proposals until Sept. 28 on how to deal with the problem. Currently, dead animals are transported by truck to the landfill, where they contribute to leachate and methane problems.

The main idea has been to dispose of mortalities using anaerobic digestion, a process that breaks the material down and creates methane, which it could then sell to the county's public utilities district as energy. The Port of Tillamook Bay now operates an anaerobic digestor for manure, but the proposed facility would incorporate carcasses and all other biomass - including food waste.

It's still at least a year away from being designed and built, but Purcell said it's a step.

"We have to think of our waste as a resource," Purcell said.

Waste management experts said energy creation from food waste is the next part in the saga. Ten to twenty years from now, anaerobic digestors could be contributing to the electricity grid of every town.

"Intentionally producing energy instead of putting it into landfill is the next step," Yamamoto said.

By finding uses for our garbage, Leebrick said, we come closer to becoming fully sustainable.

"I'd like to think there's a use for everything we throw away," she said. "We just have to make finding that our priority."

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