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Group hopes to halt trash, begin compost program

When Shannon Brundle did a study of Vashon’s waste stream for her master’s thesis, she was surprised to learn that not only does the island not have centralized composting, but there’s no place to recycle yard waste either. It’s either burned or ends up in a landfill.

“This is a no brainer to me,” Brundle said. “We’re throwing away green material and trucking it off the island. Why?”

Now Brundle’s work is a starting point for a group of islanders who hope to create a community composting program on Vashon and stop the steady flow of garbage and waste that leaves the island.

Dubbed Zero Waste Vashon, the nonprofit is exploring the possibility of locating a type of composter on Vashon that would not only recycle many types of waste — including food scraps, yard debris, sewage, meat and manure — but would also produce compost and energy to be used locally. If successful, Vashon would be the first community in the state, and possibly the country, to utilize the technology on such a small scale.

“We are the perfect petri dish to study this, and we need to set an example on this 11,000-people scale,” said Gib Dammann, an associate architect who is leading the effort.

Group members say they’re still in the early stages of researching whether such a system, called an anaerobic digester, would be feasible on Vashon, and it’s likely a traditional composing facility would be a first step. So far, however, the ambitious effort has garnered positive responses.

Zero Waste Vashon is working with a Seattle firm that believes it can build a system to fit the island. GreenTech, a small but respected group that works to foster environmentally sound business, is involved. The company that collects trash and recycling on Vashon has indicated that it could pick up compost at the curb as well. And nearly 40 islanders have volunteered to work on subcommittees in the group, including waste management experts, composting specialists, lawyers, financial experts, business owners, scientists and grant writers.

“There’s an incredible talent base of citizens here. It makes it really inspiring,” said Julia Lakey, a community activist who, along with Brundle, is now a vice president of Zero Waste Vashon.

Lakey said she’s long been frustrated to see trucks full of garbage — what amounts to about 150 tons a week, according to King County — board the ferry headed for a landfill.

“That’s not what we want to spend our precious fossil fuel on, transporting our garbage,” she said.

At the same time, truck after truck of compost comes onto the island each year. In fact, Lakey said, she’s heard from a good source that compost is so in demand on Vashon that some retailers simply can’t order as much as they need. An anaerobic digester, she said, would solve that issue and more.

Anaerobic digestion is similar to conventional composting except for one crucial detail: Instead of the biodegradable materials breaking down in a process that uses oxygen, the system breaks down materials in the absence of oxygen. Waste that can’t be traditionally composted, such as manure, meat and other proteins, can be anaerobically composted.

And while traditional composting releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, an anaerobic system produces primarily methane, a natural gas that can be captured and harvested as energy.

“Part of what got me excited about this project is that we could become carbon neutral,” Lakey said.

Anaerobic digesters have been widely used across Europe for years. In Germany, thousands of the systems constructed there have allowed the country to shut down 35 percent of its landfills.

“It’s pretty established science,” Dammann said.

King County, in fact, is currently exploring the technology as well as part of a larger effort to study its waste disposal processes and implement more sustainable options. It recently adopted a policy called Zero Waste by 2030, hoping to eventually see that no materials of value end up in a landfill.

The county currently operates a large landfill in Maple Valley and transports food waste and yard debris to a private composting facility.

Josh Marx, an official in the county’s Solid Waste Division, called anaerobic digestion “a fantastic concept,” but not one without its share of challenges. To justify a system on Vashon, he said, islanders would have to prove there would be enough waste. King County hasn’t offered curbside food and yard waste pickup on Vashon, Marx said, because it doesn’t believe there’s enough demand. The waste must also be very clean, he said, or free of materials that don’t belong in the composting system, something that can be difficult to accomplish.

“There has to be a guarantee there’s material to maintain it. It you build it, you have to feed it,” he said.

Waste supply is exactly what Zero Waste Vashon is currently looking at, Brundle said. With what it believes are firm numbers for residential waste, volunteers are now talking with local restaurants and other businesses about participating in community composting, and they will soon start a small case study at the Vashon Tea Shop.

“Now we’re focusing on the big contributors,” she said. “Households are the low-hanging fruit.”

Several years ago another group explored the idea of locating an anaerobic digester on Vashon, possibly at the K2 site, but that effort never gained traction.

Dammann, who also started Vashon Solar LLC, a successful community solar project, said he believes this time is different. Many more people are involved in this effort, he said, science has moved forward, and climate change is a greater concern than ever. He believes a large contingent of Vashon business and residents are ready to put their compost at the curb.

“All the way across the board, the need has increased,” he said.

Brundle, who also works for the National Parks Conservation Association, said she also believes islanders will want to participate in community composting, but lots of outreach and education would be involved, and the group should begin with simple composting while researching more complex additions such as an anaerobic digester.

“I think it needs to be rolled out in stages,” she said, adding that because of the island’s distinct boundaries and easy-to-measure waste stream, Vashon is a good place to pilot such a program.

Marx at King County agreed, saying the county would be willing to partner with the island and consider locating a composting center at the transfer station at if the project proves feasible.

A large composting facility could eventually operate off the profit it produces, but would likely require capital funds from grants and community fundraising to get off the ground.

“I’d love to see it happen,” Marx said. “We just have to keep talking and keep studying and keep watching prices.”

Zero Waste Vashon meets at 10 a.m. the second and fourth Saturday of each month downstairs at the Church of the Holy Spirit, and all are welcome to attend. For more information about the group, contact Gib Dammann at gibd@comcast.net.

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