For nearly 1,000 Portland-area businesses, schools and other commercial composters, a sustainability reality check appeared in the mail two weeks ago.
Metro, which manages waste collection policy for the region, sent word that it will stop allowing haulers to bring compostable cardboard through its transfer station in November.
Next year, the changes become even more dramatic: No more compostable plates will be accepted. No more compostable forks, knives or spoons. No more paper napkins or coffee cups or biodegradable cups. Only food scraps will be allowed in commercial compost heaps for most businesses and public institutions, including Portland State University and New Seasons Market.
Leaders of the Portland area's regional government say they understand the challenge the policy change, which impacts businesses that send waste to the Metro Central facility in Northwest Portland, will have on companies. "We recognize there's a big impact on them," said Paul Ehinger, Metro's director of solid waste operations. "We're concerned about that."
Metro's elected officials are also already getting pushback from lobbyists representing the compostable products industry. But they say they have no choice.
After one Washington County community objected to allowing the region's composting in their backyard, Metro's prime commercial contractor scrambled to find a replacement. The new facility says it cannot process the bulk of the region's output of compostable forks, spoons and plates -- or the tons of plastic, noncompostable paper and utensils that arrive along with the good stuff.
Trucks pulling up to JC-Biomethane, the Junction City composting facility used by Metro contractor Recology, often pull in filled with "no food at all."
"It seems to continue to get worse," Ehinger said.
Recology had a sweet thing going at its 67-acre Nature's Needs composting facility. The open-air facility in North Plains was large and allowed organic waste more time to process. But as the program grew, and the amount of commercial waste increased, the smell became too much for neighbors.
Last January, the Washington County Board of Commissioners bowed to public outcry surrounding the stench and stopped allowing businesses to ship their food waste disposal to the North Plains site. Residential composting, which is dominated by less-smelly yard debris, is still trucked to Nature's Needs.
Recology began sending compostable materials to JC-Biomethane last summer.
Dean Foor, the CEO of JC-Biomethane, said he noticed a "massive" problem from day one. Truckloads of organic matter are first dumped and picked through at Metro Central, but Foor's crews have to pick through the debris again in an attempt to weed out noncompostable items when loads arrive in Junction City.
There's no "methodology," Foor said. The material is too intermingled. And ultimately, it's not worth the time or effort for Foor's staff to try. Foor and Ehinger both said compostable products only complicate the plant's core mission: converting food scraps to energy. Non-food compostable products take too much time to break down, too.
The result: Many objects consumers thought were headed to a compost heap go to a landfill instead.
"The logic of sending us material that gets sent to the landfill doesn't add up," Foor said.
Ehinger said he estimates that 10 percent of loads arriving at Junction City are already sent to the landfill because of those "operational problems."
'Made us feel good'
As Metro's new contractor started operating in Junction City, New Seasons Market's sustainable programs manager Teak Wall said she sensed change was on the horizon.
But Wall said she didn't expect the magnitude.
Wall said Metro's changes could turn out to be a good thing, as cutting down on what can be composted will force her company to find truly reusable products rather than disposable ones.
Compostable products such as the silverware and plates throughout its stores are "a crutch," Wall said.
"It made us feel better about throwing things away," she said.
Waxed cardboard boxes pose a larger concern for grocers than utensils or napkins, Wall said. Cardboard accounts for 50 percent of what New Seasons sends to be composted. "It's a huge deal," she said.
Wall is investigating whether those boxes can be recycled and turned into fire logs, one potential way to keep them out of landfills.
Portland State University, another large commercial customer, was in the midst of ramping up its campuswide composting efforts as the announcement of new Metro rules arrived.
Jennifer McNamara, PSU's campus sustainability manager, agreed that nonfood items represented "a feel good Band-Aid solution to a much bigger problem."
She thinks Metro's changes go a bit too far, saying that paper napkins, coffee filters and other objects do break down in the composting process.
"I think that is kind of an unfortunate loss," she said.
Metro said it's not that easy. Removing nonfood items at its transfer center "adds significantly to the cost of providing services," officials said.
Education is key
The changes could also mean a potential loss for the City of Portland, which has big sustainability dreams.
By 2030, city leaders hope to reduce total waste by 25 percent from 2009 levels.
Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager at the city's Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, said Metro's new rules "will be a little bit of a challenge."
For the most part, Portlanders are doing a good job composting. The commercial sector hasn't kept up.
A recent city audit found that 85 percent of homes collect and compost organic waste, while just 58 percent of commercial operations do. Businesses account for 77 percent of otherwise compostable material that ends up in area landfills.
City auditors recommended that Portland regulators do more to boost participation among commercial customers and better educate customers about what is actually compostable. Walker predicted that for many businesses, this wouldn't represent much of a change.
He said BPS is trying to better analyze "who some of the large generators" of waste may be. "There's the opportunity to do more," he said.
Ehinger said the 1,000 businesses participating in Metro's compost program "are trying to do the right thing."
In the next few years, Metro leaders want to create a solid waste "road map" for the region, specifically trying to answer the question, "How do we get enough processing capacity?" That could mean hauling compostable material to a new facility, multiple facilities, or even a government-owned plant. That, Ehinger said, would cost "a lot of money" and require some difficult conversations about where to locate a plant.
"The whole realm is wide open," Ehinger said.