Most people say that it would be a better use of energy, and preservation of nutrients, to compost my apple rather than landfill it. Over 90 cities in the US offer curbside composting, and Seattle was one of the first (though the very first is said to be San Francisco).
The company in charge of composting all of the Seattle’s yard and food waste is Cedar Grove. We visited them at their corporate headquarters in South Seattle. The building looked like your typical glass-clad high-tech office building, except that it was surrounded by a massive fence with razor wire and barbed wire. We thought maybe it was this well protected because it was near the Boeing Airfield and the security measures there were somewhat contagious.
John Inge, their Marketing Director, explained the business to us. Cedar Grove began by composting the yard waste for the City of Seattle. The City was interested in reducing the amount of material they were landfilling and yard waste was an easy target. Eventually the process expanded to include veggie food waste and then meat and dairy and it now also includes biodegradeable food packaging waste.
The City of Seattle pays Cedar grove for every ton of compostable material that Cedar Grove accepts from the area. Private haulers (WMI, Allied, and Clean Scapes) do the collection from residential and some commercial, although Cedar Grove has a fleet of trucks that pick up food waste from restaurants in Seattle.
About 30% of their compost sales come from the State, and the building industry (restoration and new construction) take another big chunk.Currently Cedar Grove sells their compost in bags and in bulk. Selling in bulk is new to Cedar Grove, but they are finding it necessary because they have more compost than they can sell, due to the huge amounts of yard and food waste that come in (350,000 tons a year). John told us that the pile of compost they have is getting bigger and bigger and so they are searching for new ways to market the compost and new ways to deliver it. Still, the pile grows every year.
And of course, like everyone in the disposal business, John said plastic is the big problem. They never really can get a clean load. Plastic seems to end up in everything, and once it’s in, they have the dickins of a time getting it out. It doesn’t help that people think they can lob anything they want in the yard waste bin, or maybe anything they use in the yard (hoses, hoes, roundup containers, and so on.)
The idea of what is and is not biodegradable is interesting. John told us that even a rock is biodegradeable. The term gets used quite loosely and there isn’t really any oversight when it comes to people using the term. John told us that those take-out containers that Chinese food come in aren’t compostable, a lot of paper board that has been treated with plastic coatings isn’t compostable, and even many of the cups and other disposable items that are labeled compostable or biodegradeable aren’t really. They will degrade eventually, but not in any time frame that makes commercial or economic sense.
Cedar Grove has never kept their information on what they can compost proprietary. In fact they have developed a side business of compostability testing. John said that their testing is pretty universally accepted; if it’s compostable by Cedar Grove, then most composting facilities will be able to deal with it.
Cedar Grove’s diversification seems to be coming at an opportune time, as their primary business (composting) has been receiving attention. It seems that there is a bit of an odor issue; residents near Cedar Grove facilities have been complaining. John said that compost facilities are pretty much the new nuclear reactors in that he doesn’t think anyone wants them nearby. Margaret and I didn’t get a chance to smell any of the Cedar Grove facilities, but the end product smells pretty good.
Once again, it’s not a simple issue: composting seems like a good thing; composting on a municipal level also seems good; but it smells and we may end up with more compost than we know what to do with.