Snohomish County wants to give composting a boost

EVERETT — Snohomish County has a vision for how to convert more of your garbage into something useful — it’s called composting.

To make that happen, the county is looking to promote more local operations for turning yard debris, food leftovers and wood scraps into rich, brown earth that can be spread on farm fields or backyard gardens.

The county is pinning its hopes for a greener future on companies such as Cedar Grove in Everett. That’s happening just as composting operations there and elsewhere are triggering multiple odor complaints.

Snohomish County already hosts Washington’s largest concentration of big, commercial composting operations, and it could prove a testing ground for how communities address the challenges.

“It is kind of a national trend,” county solid waste director Matt Zybas said.

The composting initiative is just one part of an unfinished draft plan that county staff are preparing to guide all aspects of the local solid waste system, including how to manage issues linked to closed landfills and exporting the county’s trash east of the mountains.

Composting comes up in a section of the plan focused on organic waste. It concludes with several recommendations: coordinating permits for new and expanded composting facilities; promoting the use of compost; upgrading county transfer stations to better handle organic trash; and educating people about organic recycling.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not like the smell of the county proposal.

Odor complaints for years have dogged Cedar Grove’s facility on Smith Island in north Everett and other composting operations in the region. The county plan acknowledges that reality up front, saying that odor concerns need to be resolved before putting any of the composting recommendations into play.

Councilman Dave Gossett said county staff have discussed composting issues at public meetings, but never any specific plans to promote the composting business.

“Everybody would agree that it’s a good idea to remove things from the waste stream and reuse them,” Gossett said. “But as we do so, we have to make sure to avoid consequences that we don’t want.”

The complaints about unpleasant aromas emanating from Cedar Grove mostly have come from people in Marysville, north Everett and the Tulalip area. The company’s Everett plant has twice been fined by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The company’s Maple Valley plant has incurred fines as well.

More recently, Cedar Grove has come under public criticism for asking permission from the state to release more phosphorus into Steamboat Slough. The substance in large amounts can harm fish. The company also recently dropped a project to build an anaerobic digester on Smith Island to extract methane gas from organic waste. That came after Cedar Grove learned it would first have to prepare a full environmental study.

Besides Cedar Grove, four other companies operate large composting facilities in Snohomish County: Bailey Compost in Snohomish, Lenz Enterprises in Stanwood, Pacific Topsoils in various spots and Misich Farms of Snohomish, which is associated with Riverside Topsoils.

That gives Snohomish County more large, state-regulated compost operations than any other Washington county.

“I don’t know of any other county that has more than a couple,” said Peter Christiansen, a section manager with state Department of Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources Program.

The stretches of suburbia near some of those facilities also make Snohomish County a flash point for odor complaints.

“It is a statewide issue,” Christiansen said. “It is more focused up there because you’re in a more densely populated area.”

Large-scale yard waste composting has evolved over the past decades along with the recycling industry. Efforts by state and local governments to remove more grass clippings, chopped branches and food leftovers from the trash have accelerated, especially in the past four or five years, Christiansen said. There’s no state law telling lower branches of government to head in that direction, but the state strongly recommends it.

“It’s becoming the rule more than the exception for local jurisdictions to collect yard and garden waste and food scraps,” Christiansen said. “It’s generally not the local governments themselves out collecting it. They put it out in their comprehensive solid waste plan. It says ‘This needs to be done.’ Then the private haulers do it.”

The county already manages to recycle a large amount of its yard debris — some 94 percent, according to a 2009 state study. That’s out of an estimated 163,000 tons generated per year.

Christiansen called that figure impressive.

Still, that leaves nearly 10,000 tons per year that’s not recycled. Add to that other types of organic garbage that aren’t recycled as efficiently as they could be, and there’s room for improvement.

By the state’s estimate, only about 14,000 tons of the 75,000 tons of food waste that Snohomish County produced in 2009 got recycled. That’s about 19 percent.

“That’s kind of the next movement in the organics cycle, to get people to recycle their food scraps and to do it the right way,” Christiansen said.

Governments and industry alike are trying to find ways to make composting more efficient and palatable to the public.

There’s been talk of building smaller, regional facilities close to where the materials are produced, Christiansen said.

Another idea is using anaerobic digesters to extract energy from the waste, something Christiansen said has the potential to reduce odor.

Making that happen might be harder than it sounds; that’s the same type of technology Cedar Grove shelved at its Smith Island facility after being told to conduct an environmental study.

Still, Cedar Grove touts anaerobic digestion and other technologies it expects to emerge, along with composting, as huge potential boons for the environment.

“We are confident that our industry and its governmental partners will continue to develop and improve organics recycling systems that will deal successfully with growth,” company spokeswoman Susan Thoman wrote in an email.

For the compost industry, one of the biggest problems right now is finding people to buy their product. That has been tougher during the economic downturn.

Snohomish County has been working on that very issue through a grant-funded project to study and promote compost use by local farmers. One of the goals is encourage farmers to switch to local compost instead of synthetic fertilizers.

“The idea with the project was to really close the loop in the waste stream and to reach out to the agriculture community,” said Lisa Dulude, a county analyst who works in the areas of energy and sustainable development.

The project, which runs until the end of the year, is being paid for with a $40,000 federal stimulus grant. It involves soil testing and studying the impacts of compost on specific crops as well as documenting what local farmers have learned. County and WSU Extension staff are working with 25 locations, mostly farms plus some nurseries. Afterward, they plan to conduct a focus group to ask farmers about the challenges of using compost compared to what they’re doing now.

Local composting businesses tend to use different methods.

Bailey Compost has been in business since 1995 mixing yard debris with cow manure from the Bailand Dairy Farm on the same property south of Snohomish.

Bailand Farms president Don Bailey said one of the factors holding his company back is the high permitting cost. Every year, he pays about $10,000 for two permits, one for handling solid waste and another for air-quality.

“I think lowering the permit fee from the air quality authority would be helpful,” Bailey said.

The county’s solid waste plan continues to undergo revisions. Before it becomes official, likely some time next year, it must receive the blessing of the County Council and the state Department of Ecology.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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