Several possible solutions under study
Methow Recycles is exploring options for disposing of organic material.
Methow Recycles Executive Director Betsy Cushman said last week that “When the apple maggot quarantine happened [in the fall of 2018] and all that organic material was being put in the landfill or burned, we saw an opportunity to create a public and private momentum to create an alternative solution.”
The move to come up with a different solution for organic material, said Cushman, is motivated not only internally, but also by customer interest.
“After glass,” Cushman said, “organic material is the second-most asked about substance at Methow Recycles. People want to know, ‘Why don’t you accept organic material?’ They want to know what they can do with their kitchen waste, yard waste, and woody waste [from Firewise projects]. At the end of races and community events, people are always asking ‘Where’s the compost?’ Visitors from larger communities are used to having food waste collection bins at events. So we are researching what it would take to accept these items.”
Accepting organic material would contribute to cleaner air and fuel reduction, said Cushman, since the waste would no longer be burned or transported to the landfill. “A solution to organics affects a broad range of entities,” said Cushman, “from household members to the agriculture community to public entities to arborists. Restaurants put their food waste in the landfill; wineries, breweries, and coffee roasters have to do something with their by-products.”
To represent this cross-section of interests and discuss solutions, Methow Recycles assembled a committee including representatives from Clean Air Methow, the Town of Twisp (Andrew Denham), Okanogan County Solid Waste (Kent Kovolenko), BCS Livestock (Casey Smith), WasteWise (Casey Bouchard), the Methow Conservancy (Alyssa Jumars), and Classroom in Bloom (Kim Romain-Bondi).
There are three main ways to utilize organic material, Cushman said: compost, anaerobic digestion, and biochar. Composting is a means of decomposing organic matter into a substance that can be used to improve soil health. Anaerobic digestion breaks down organic materials into biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, and can produce either dry or liquid fertilizer and fuel. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that is created by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry waste, but unlike charcoal, biochar reduces contamination and stores carbon safely, as well as being useful as a soil amendment and potentially as an accelerant for composting of food and green wastes.
“We specifically decided not to focus on a single solution initially,” said Cushman. “We don’t want to presuppose what the answer will be.”
Funded by a private grant, Methow Recycles is now carrying out a feasibility study to determine whether it could begin accepting organic material, and if so, how. Launched in early 2020, the feasibility study is being conducted by valley resident Gwen Vernon, who has a long history in consulting and solid waste issues. “Vernon has already collected a lot of information from producers in the valley,” Cushman said. “She’s trying to get her arms around the volume of organic material currently going into the landfill, understanding what these producers create as by-products of what they make, and how much of it is created.”
Vernon visited neighboring facilities to see what other communities are doing with organic material, including Stemilt Growers in the Wenatchee area, Midnight’s Farm Composting on Lopez Island, Impact Bioenergy, and Chelan County. Solutions vary, but by looking at communities with similar volume and behaviors, Methow Recycles hopes to come up with a feasible answer.
The big unknown, said Cushman, lies in what currently happens at households all over the valley. “When people say to us ‘You guys should accept organics,’ we need to know if they mean a place to put their kitchen scraps, or their yard waste, or are they looking for a place to buy compost. The survey will help us learn what people are currently doing and what would make an organics program successful for them.”
The other factor, said Cushman, is how willing people are to change their behaviors to take advantage of an organics program. “How big a priority is an organics solution for people?” Cushman wants to know. “Collecting and transporting kitchen and yard waste takes time; it isn’t always convenient. Are people willing to make the extra effort? What are people willing to do to make this happen?”
Information gathered from the survey will help Methow Recycles determine how much — if any — effort to put into the next steps of exploring solutions. There are, of course, other factors to consider, says Cushman, such as volume, climate, and expense. “It might end up being two solutions, or a hybrid solution,” she said.
Cushman said that at some point there will be a fork in the road toward developing an organic materials program. That fork, she said, “is whether we consider post-consumer food waste. If you’re composting and you want to include waste from household kitchens, it comes with the highest level of difficulty and the highest price tag. It tends to be contaminated, it generates odor issues. It’s made doing what Seattle does really hard.”
It doesn’t mean we can’t do a post-consumer food waste program in the Methow, Cushman said, but it might mean that compost — the most commonly proposed alternative — might not be the solution, despite what people may assume.
Methow Recycles’ exploratory process mirrors the one the organization used when it figured out a business plan for the recycling center. “We looked at other communities’ models and superimposed those on the Methow,” Cushman said. “Now we’re looking at similar-sized communities that generate similar kinds of volume and materials and superimposing those on our community.”
To collect information, Methow Recycles is “blasting out a community survey focused on households,” Cushman said. “We will get the business input separately; it’s a small enough community that we can reach out to them individually.” Cushman is hoping for broad participation in the survey: full-time residents, part-timers, frequent visitors. “Everyone holds a particular piece of the puzzle,” she said.
Sustainable tourism is another piece of the puzzle, said Cushman. “We want to know what our visitors expect and value; that’s useful information.”
In terms of a timeline for a solution, Cushman said “We are not promising anything yet. We’re not at the stage to do public presentations; we are still in the information-gathering stage. But at some point, we will be presenting our findings, and answering these questions: Is there a solution? What is it? What will it cost?”
In the meantime, Methow Valley residents and visitors can contribute to the effort by completing the survey, which will be widely distributed. It can be found at https://bit.ly/MV-Organics.