County to evaluate feasibility of island compost facility

Solid Waste Division officials requesting proposals for study to assess if Vashon could support one.

Members of the group Zero Waste Vashon have been working for years to reduce the island’s waste stream, and recently King County announced its plans to assess whether Vashon could support its own compost facility.

Officials at the Solid Waste Division are requesting proposals to conduct a feasibility study outlining the costs, benefits and challenges of processing organic materials such as yard waste and food scraps for compost at an industrial scale on the island.

Morgan John, a project manager at the solid waste division, has spent 20 years looking for alternatives to how the county handles organics and the disposal of garbage. He said his work is as relevant today as ever, as officials scramble to figure out how they can keep the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in Maple Valley from hitting its limits.

The island, he said, is a unique community because of its self-reliance and passion for sustainability and the environment, as well as for the limitations posed by being surrounded by water. He added that he is optimistic of getting a new feasibility study underway, believing the results could serve as a model for other rural communities where managing garbage is problematic, such as in the Snoqualmie Valley.

“Green waste is something that can, with the right methods, be handled locally,” he said. “So maybe this is a nice way of shifting the direction or changing the way people think of local resource management.”

This is not the first time a closer look has been proposed to determine the merit of on-island composting. The county requested a limited feasibility study in 2001, but it went nowhere. Former islander Shannon Brundle, who once served on the board of Zero Waste Vashon, wrote her master’s thesis on the subject in 2011.

Islanders have shown their openness and enthusiasm for related causes.

In 2016, the county began a popular yard and food waste pilot program at the Vashon Transfer Station. The refuse surrendered there — anything from branches and brush to food and vegetable scraps and holiday trees — is brought to the Cedar Grove Compost facility. But the process is carbon heavy, taking hundreds of trips a year to haul away by ferry and truck, and then back again as compost.

Moving the waste from Vashon to the processing facility costs $200,000 annually, according to county calculations.

“That’s what we’re looking into, whether that added expense … [would] make a local compost facility make sense,” said John.

Meanwhile, the island transfer station has been as active as ever. According to Kerwin Pyle, a supervisor at the Solid Waste Division, last year the Vashon transfer station accepted 285 tons of cardboard, 422 tons of paper, 242 tons of glass, 253 tons of metal and 851 tons of yard waste, to name some of the largest figures.

“When it comes to yard waste in particular, if something can be done to keep that transportation from happening — if it could stay on the island — that would be fantastic,” said Pyle.

The Solid Waste Division is partnering with Zero Waste Vashon to consider the scope of work involved with building a facility. The island nonprofit will also gather input and review the proposals for the study with division officials. Zero Waste Vashon’s president Gib Dammann will participate in a formal advisory group, said John, and members will engage the issue in the community throughout the year.

John said he hopes a consultant will be chosen by late summer to conduct the study. A report could be prepared by this fall.

“And that will give us … the information we need to decide whether we’re going to go ahead with a facility or continue with what we’re doing now,” he said.

John emphasized that one of the most important questions the study will answer is how much construction and operation of a facility may cost. The savings from composting locally on Vashon would be significant, but it is not clear if there would be enough of a market on the island for finished compost.

There is also the matter of where a compost facility could be built, and the impact it may have on those living nearby.

“Siting the plant could be a challenge,” said John. “It just depends on how effective technologies are in keeping odors in. We want to be a friend to neighbors, not a menace.”

Islander Steve Bergman, a Zero Waste Vashon member, said composting waste has proven to be a success in many communities.

In Boise, Idaho, for example, a composting program has rapidly grown since it began two years ago, picking up more than 40,000 tons of organic, renewable material, according to the Boise Weekly. It is being expanded to include neighborhood associations so people can access the compost they help produce closer to their own homes.

Bergman said he would like the study to consider methods to break down other matter — specifically raw feedstock — with bacteria by way of anaerobic digestion. The methane captured from that process can be used as an alternative fuel source — one such system was unveiled by Impact Bioenergy on Tuesday at the Island Spring Organics tofu factory.

To Bergman, there is an observable paradigm shift underway, as people decide if they want to play a part in the revitalization of the places where they live while minimizing their own ecological footprint. He remembers the old commercial dirt yard behind Minglement, shuttered in 2010 by the county health department before the transfer station accepted green waste. Neighbors complained that runoff was contaminating Judd Creek. The popular business, which sold fill, lacked proper permitting from the county to accept the materials disposed of there.

To Bergman, the old ways no longer work.

“We’re trying to transition into the next phase of Vashon, I think,” he said. “We’re susceptible to a lot of climate change impacts with [extreme] weather. I think the more we can react to these changes locally as a community, it just leads to a much better situation on the island.”

On Vashon, some groups are collecting food waste themselves, including once a week at both the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, and at Gold Beach, where development director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust Erika Carleton lives. She said 15 households there began collecting food and taking it to the transfer station three years ago every Saturday morning after the yard and food waste pilot program at the transfer station was launched. Carleton said they did it to show the county they had a willingness to try.

She and her neighbors have been committed to composting ever since and divert approximately 200 pounds of their own combined food waste each week. That means fewer and lighter garbage bags for the landfill, noted Carleton.

But she said logistics made it impossible to collect and haul the food waste of any more families, despite her confidence that the number of those participating would grow exponentially if they could.

“The idea of supporting [this] and having it be successful was that hopefully, we could move onto something more efficient,” she said. “And that’s what’s frustrating about it — we’ve been doing what we’re doing for the last three years.”

Collecting food waste, added Carleton, introduced her to neighbors she had never met before. She said the adjustment of sorting garbage from food waste was an effortless adjustment.

“Five years ago, if I went to someone’s house, and they just did this voluntarily, I used to think that was so weird,” she said. “Once I understood the value of diverting food waste from the regular waste stream — the value of creating compost and [cultivating] soil — once you understand, it’s not complicated.”

This version of the story corrects Shannon Brundle’s title. She is not a current Zero Waste Vashon board member.

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