The Future of Seattle Trash: Burn, Baby, Burn

In 2011, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring and Tulalip Tribes Chair Mel Sheldon wrote a letter to Seattle’s mayor and city council members pleading with them to do something about the terrible smell local residents believed was emanating from Cedar Grove’s nearby composting plant—a facility that takes in a share of Seattle’s food and yard waste. Even then, the stink of composting was not a new problem. For years, citizens had complained about Cedar Grove’s other facility in Maple Valley, some even filing a lawsuit in the late ‘90s that resulted in a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Nehring says he didn’t get any response to his letter beyond polite letters of acknowledgment from Seattle officials. Composting was popular, even sacrosanct, given the given its status as a darling of environmentalists,

Suddenly, though, Seattle City Council members are concerned—even “embarrassed,” as Sally Bagshaw puts it—about the burden the city’s waste is putting on other communities. And it’s causing Bagshaw to look into alternatives to composting.

The change in posture was brought to light when a new composting contract came before them late last month that would grant 60 percent of the city’s organic waste to a company called PacifiClean. The company, which Ceder Grove is heavily invested in, doesn’t have a composting facility up and running yet, but is proposing to build one in Kittitas County just east of Snoqualmie Pass. That had Kittitas County residents storming a Seattle City Council meeting, an in-your-face approach that led the council to impose new restrictions on the plant like a requirement that it be built away from residential areas.

While Bagshaw touts those changes as a significant step in dealing with composting’s ill effects, she says she’s thinking about bigger changes—the kind that much of Europe have already taken,

“Flip yourself over to Europe. Denmark, Germany, France have all taken on a new technology, and this is where the environmental community starts growling at each other,” she says. That’s because the new technology is an updated form of incineration, which once had a terrible reputation among environmentalists because of all the toxins it pumped into the air.

These days, though, it’s widely agreed that the Europeans have come up with a model that is vastly cleaner. “Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago,” wrote The New York Times in a 2010 piece on such a facility in Denmark. “The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.” What’s more, the European incinerators turn the waste into energy.

“That technology is something I would like us to look at,” Bagshaw says.

Baghsaw is not the first in these parts to become intrigued by the Europeans’ way with trash. Fellow Councilmember Richard Conlin took a garbage tour in Scandinavia about five years ago, at the invitation of a Seattle ex-pat named Patricia Chase.

Chase, who has since moved to Washington, D.C. and formed a consulting group called i-Sustain, says she was wowed by a lot of things in Denmark, not least its state-of-the-art incinerators that are so clean and widely-accepted that residents water ski on the river that runs right along one plant in Copenhagen. Out of the blue, she says, she started “cold-calling” architects and developers in Seattle, saying “you have to come see this!” Amazingly, some 20 of them agreed. More trips followed, including the one that Conlin joined.

Independently, King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert was investigating European trash facilities as she confronted the limited capacity of the county’s Cedar Hills landfill, which at one point of time was scheduled to fill up by 2012. (That date has been expanded by at least seven years due, in part, to an expansion at the landfill.) Participating in another tour in 2006 organized by a local with German connections, she says she “fell in love” with a Hamburg facility. The Redmond Republican has talked about it ever since with anyone who will listen.

Whether officials here will ever replace composting with incinerators is an open question. Conlin says he was impressed by the facility he saw in Malmö, Sweden, right across the Øresund strait from Copenhagen. But he’s not willing to let go of composting’s green halo and says of incineration: “The question is: Does it fit into the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle?” A New York environmentalist went even further when interviewed by the Times in 2010, calling incinerators the “devil” because they take an incentive away from recycling.

And there are obstacles even to using incinerators instead of landfills. Seattle is locked into its contract with an Oregon landfill until at least 2019, points out SPU director of solid waste Tim Croll. The contract states that any of the city’s waste that is not recycled or composted has to go to that landfill. So, any rediversion of the city’s trash – whether organic or not—into an alternate technology will have to wait at least until the end of the decade.

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