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As county rethinks Vashon’s recycling, Islanders hatch an innovative plan

In a week or two, Islanders will receive a survey from King County, asking Vashon residents if they’d like a service already offered in nearly every other community in the county — curbside yard waste and food waste recycling.

Over the last five years, the county has measurably enhanced its recycling programs, creating services that enable residents to recycle a wide range of items and materials, including grass clippings, woody debris and food waste. Now, only Vashon and Skykomish, the two remotest parts of the county, lack the full suite of services.

The county identified the service gaps in its recent solid waste management plan and pledged to “take a look at the recycling services on Vashon and see if there are some needs for changes,” said Jeff Gaisford, recycling and environmental services manager for the Solid Waste Division in the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

The survey, slated to be mailed to every household at the end of May or beginning of June, will help the county decide how to proceed, Gaisford said. “We want to see what people are interested in and what we can afford.”

The county’s efforts, coincidentally, come at the same time that several Islanders are exploring ways to build a bio-based recycling center on Vashon — an emerging technology that converts food and yard waste into compost as well as methane, a kind of natural gas that can be captured and used to fuel homes.

The technology is gaining traction in Europe and parts of the United States, where it’s seen as an elegant way to deal with waste while harnessing a source of energy that is otherwise emitted into the atmosphere, adding to the world’s growing climate problem.

Bob Kommer, an Islander and principal in Summit Biofuels, is working with communities in other parts of the country to undertake such efforts. Now, at his wife’s urging, he’s turned his attention to Vashon to see if he can create on his home turf an enterprise that is garnering enthusiasm elsewhere.

King County’s efforts come at an opportune time, Kommer said, as he’s missing one key ingredient — what he calls “feed stock,” a stream of food and yard waste that would provide the basis for his project.

“Once King County implements a food waste/green waste program on Vashon, there will be feedstock,” he said.

Kommer’s idea has captured the attention of several other Islanders with a keen interest in environmentally minded technologies. Indeed, last month, the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council pass-ed a motion urging the county to implement a food-and-yard waste recycling program on Vashon and to facilitate the siting of a bio-conversion center on Vashon.

“We’re strongly encouraging him to move forward and helping him where we can,” said Stan Voynick, a software and electronics engineer and Vashon resident.

The technology, he added, makes enormous sense.

“A lot of people look at our garbage as something to be gotten rid of,” he said. “This is a resource ... that we could be using to the Island’s benefit. And if we don’t, we end up paying to ship that resource somewhere else and burying it in the ground.”

Tag Gornall, another Islander who finds Kommer’s idea captivating, called it “one of those bang-your-hand-on-your-forehead things.”

“Why didn’t we think of this before?” he added. “Why does it take so long to get to the obvious?”

Kommer says the technology has actually been around since the 10th century, when the Assyrians used it to heat bath water. Called anaerobic digestion, the technology is similar to conventional composting except for one crucial detail: Instead of the biodegradable materials breaking down in a process that uses oxygen, this system uses a series of processes to break down materials in the absence of oxygen.

The difference is significant, Kommer said.

Both, of course, produce compost. But traditional composting releases methane — considered a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. An anaerobic system captures the methane and puts it to use, harnessing it as a source of energy.

Kommer says a bio-conversion center on Vashon could produce enough methane to provide energy to power 70 to 100 homes — and it could do so, he added, at a fraction of what it would cost to install solar panels in that many homes.

The idea is particularly exciting to Kommer and his supporters for other ecological reasons: Right now, a lot of that waste ends up in Vashon’s transfer station, where its trucked to a Maple Valley landfill that is quickly reaching its capacity. Once that landfill is full, the county plans to cart the waste some 350 miles to a landfill in Eastern Washington.

All of that transportation creates a heavy carbon footprint, Kommer noted. What’s more, according to county statistics, a staggering 40 percent of what gets buried in the landfill could be recycled.

“Landfilling is the absolute worst thing we can do with our waste,” Kommer said.

Gaisford, with the county, said he and others in the county are receptive to Kommer’s idea.

Currently, the county sends its food and yard waste to Cedar Grove Composting, a large site in Maple Valley. If the county were to begin a food and yard waste recycling program on Vashon, the company that hauls waste and recyclables on Vashon — Waste Connections — would presumably haul Vashon’s biodegradable materials to the Maple Valley site as well, he said.

A bio-conversion center, were one to get built on Vashon, would have to bid for the Island’s stream of food and yard waste, he added. But presumably it could win such a bid, he said, since on-Island disposal should be cheaper than taking the materials off Island.

“If there were an on-Island option, that would be great,” Gaisford said.

Kommer, who would like to establish the operation at the transfer station or the empty K2 plant, believes he could find the capital to make such a project happen. “This is what my company does,” he said.

But such projects are easier in those states that have made a commitment — through its policies and regulations — to support such efforts, he said. Oregon, for instance, charges a $1,000 licensing fee, compared to Washington, which charges $13,000, a fee, he added, that “favors large composting companies.”

Kommer said he’s encouraged by the county’s initial signs of support.

Ultimately, he added, the effort is not difficult technologically or financially. The challenge, he said, will be a political one.

“This is going to require King County’s cooperation,” he said. “If they cooperate, it’ll work.”

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