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08/25/2005 01:17 PM     print story email story         Page: 1  | 2  | 3  

10 Lessons on Food Recycling in Portland, OR.

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by Jennifer Erickson

Metro launched its fullscale commercial food residuals composting program in January 2005. Many valuable lessons were learned along the sometimes rocky road. This article relates the history of the program in the context of 10 key lessons my mother taught me early in life. Little did she know these lessons aptly applied to putting together the infrastructure to support a food residuals diversion program!

I work for Metro, a regional government headed by a directly-elected Council that deals with transportation and land use planning, parks, open spaces, visitor services like the Zoo and Convention Center, solid waste reduction planning and the solid waste disposal system. Metro owns two transfer stations and contracts for its operation as well as for landfilling the region's waste. It serves 25 cities and three counties in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area representing 1.4 million people.

Back in 1995, the Metro region wrote and adopted a Regional Solid Waste Management Plan. It included some recommended practices and strategies for commercial organics recovery. These practices placed the burden on the private sector to initiate development of an organics recovery system. We we published this organics plan and then we waited. And we waited ... and waited some more.

Finally, in 1999 we knew something had to give. We had over 275,000 tons of food and nonrecyclable paper being landfilled annually and we needed to recover 45,000 tons of that to reach our state-mandated 62% recovery level by 2005. The good news is we reach a 57% recovery rate in 2003. The bad news is the recovery rate in the organics sector. While we do recover and compost 80% of our yard trimmings (as of 2003), food was the largest remaining component of the waste stream that had no real recovery infrastructure in place.

Lesson #1: Clean Your Plate (or at least 'Fork it Over!')

We sat down and wrote a comprehensive organics plan based on the highest and best use: food as food - what a concept! The plan had a two-track approach; the first focused on recovery for donation to food banks and the second focused on composting what remained.

Considering that Oregon has one of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the nation, this approach was a natural. The Oregon Food Bank has a network of over 750 member agencies and there is an existing infrastructure in place to collect, store and distribute surplus food. The trick was we were focusing on perishable and pre-prepared foods and the infrastructure to handle these items was much weaker. So we put together a grant program for food rescue agencies to purchase refrigerated trucks, walk-in coolers, freezers and a myriad of other items designed to increase thier ability to receive, safely handle, store and distribute perishable foods.

Five years and $700,000 in grant funds later, we've helped food rescue agencies put over 9000 tons of additional fresh food in the stomachs of Oregon's hungry. and for every dollar Metro spent, there was a $31 benefit to the region's food banks - a darn good return on investment.

After helping strengthen infrastructure, we focused on getting the word out, myth busting, and serving as the link between the potential donor and the food rescue agencies. We spent a fair amount of time and effort understanding the barriers and benefits to food donation before we structured our program. The result is Fork it Over!, an outreach program to the food industry that addresses the real and perceived barriers and benefits of donation.

Our message is: it's safe, simple and the right thing to do. Safe, because Good Samaritan laws protect good faith donors. Simple, because we will set up the program and make the connections for them, or they can use the interactive website to find the food rescue agency nearest them that meets their needs. The right thing to do, because businesses contribute to the community that supports them.

Lesson #2: Money Can's Buy You Love (or a Compost Facility)

In 2000 we gathered up our 14 local yard trimmings composters and asked them if they were interested in taking the next step with us and upgrading their facilities to accommodate food residuals. They replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!" and then they followed up with a resounding ... "If you pay for it!"

We were prepared for the inevitable "it'll cost ya" hitch and in 2000 we happily issued a matching grant program that offered up to $500,000 in funds for infrastructure and equipment upgrades to build local capacity for food residuals composting. And then we waited for the expected flood of applications ... and waited. You would think with 14 area yard trimmings composters, we'd get more than one viable application, right? Nope.

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