The concept of composting is nearly as old as gardening itself but, while the rise of "farm-to-table" food sourcing has introduced composting heaps to city-living, the idea of turning rotting waste into nutrient-rich humus remains an oddity for most urbanites.
"Folks outside the city have larger lots or acreage, so there's more opportunity to manage compost out there," said Catherine Chertudi, Environmental Programs manager for the city of Boise.
Chertudi has been talking trash at City Hall for more than 25 years, following six years at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and a year as an environmental paralegal in the Idaho attorney general's office.
"We have over 97 percent of Boise households currently signed up for recycling services," she said.
That's a long way from 2009, when Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's hotline lit up with citizens complaining about how their trash was being handled differently. Even city officials said at the time there were some "hiccups" during the rollout of color-coded trash carts, intended to eliminate the unsightly presence of mountainous heaps of curbside trash bags. Equally important was the successful introduction of curbside recycling of cans, paper and plastics. An additional glass recycling pick-up soon followed.
"And today, I can tell you that we collected 12,464 tons of recyclables in 2015," said Chertudi.
Still, it turns out we still have a bit of work to do—albeit voluntarily.
During a May 2014 visit, Boise Weekly witnessed tons of garbage being pushed around what is known as the North Ravine Cell, a 281-acre mound of waste that is only of the 14 stages of the 2,700-acre Ada County Landfill Complex. Among the sea of trash was a jaw-dropping amount of organic waste—particularly food—that was being dumped over and over and over again.
The good news is Ada County was already knee-deep in what it called an historic analysis, as teams of moon-suited auditors manually sorted through the tons of garbage. By early 2015, a stunning trend had been officially chronicled: thousands of tons of so-called "edible food" end up in the landfill.
According to the odorous census, more than 53,000 tons of food waste is sent to the Ada County Landfill each year, and more than 17,000 tons of it was edible at the time it was discarded, including vegetables, fruit, bread, meat, pasta, cheese and more.
"A year later, it's pretty much the same. It just keeps coming," said Ted Hutchinson, deputy solid waste director for Ada County. "So much of that food is tossed out when the 'sell-by' date has expired. A good many people think food is no good after a 'sell-by' date. But changing their thinking takes a good amount of time."
The analysis also revealed that we send approximately 52,570 tons of yard debris to the Ada County Landfill each year, much of it grass clippings and trimmings from bushes and trees. Not surprisingly, the survey found, 34,500 tons of that yard debris come from single-family homes in the city of Boise.
The analysis concluded food waste from Boise single-family residential customers totaled more than 16 percent of total waste disposed and yard debris accounted for another 29.5 percent. The bottom line: organic waste makes up more than 45 percent of all waste delivered to the landfill from Boise homes. That means each person in Boise is responsible for approximately 390 pounds of organic materials in the landfill.
Even an amateur gardener knows the opportunity of composting all of that organic waste could yield some of the most bountiful garden beds and vegetable patches in the region. Boise city officials see that opportunity, too. According to new figures, Boise could recycle nearly 42,000 tons of organic materials each year if waste managers diverted food and yard debris to a separate composting facility.
The simple but game-changing question to be placed before Boise citizens: How would you like a curbside compost service?
"First of all, it's important to stress that this is just a concept right now," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. "There are a lot of players inside and outside of City Hall and they're going to have to be a part of this in order for it to work. There are a lot of bridges to cross and quite a few off-ramps along the way."
City staff first approached Republic Services Waste Collection to consider a curbside organics collection that would be available to nearly 73,000 households. The initial proposal would include 95-gallon carts of organic waste collected weekly.
However, a massive composting facility wouldn't end up at that the Ada County Landfill.
"Yes, the city of Boise approached us," said Hutchinson, "and we placed it before the Ada County Solid Waste Advisory Committee last fall."
The committee, comprised of citizens, county officials and representatives from each of the county's municipalities, was born from the landfill analysis, inspiring more solution-based dialogue. But it turns out the committee didn't think a composting facility at the landfill complex was a good idea, in spite of the fact that the organic waste is ending up in the dump anyway.
"One of the major concerns that the committee had was that, if composting facilities are not managed correctly, they can generate quite an odor," said Hutchinson. "And we have some neighbors that are quite sensitive to the landfill's odor already. As a result of the odor issues, the use of the county landfill property was taken off the table."
At Boise City Hall, Chertudi said odor should never be an issue with a well-run composting operation.
"Compost odors occur only when a facility is improperly managed," she said. "Properly managed compost smells like rich soil."
Chertudi added that large composting facilities in areas that experience an inordinate amount of precipitation may experience a rapid breakdown of organics, thus triggering some unpleasant odors.
"But we don't have that here in our climate," she said. "In southwest Idaho, we would probably have to add water to keep it working well. So again, it's only when things are improperly managed and the compost is allowed to go anaerobic when you get those odors. Obviously, Diamond Street Recycling is doing just great with their composting and I haven't heard a single complaint about that operation."
At Diamond Street, which is locally owned and operated by Dale and Lonnie Hope, of Boise, the operation runs clean and organized—a feat, considering it encompasses 32 acres of waste.
"It's a non-stop freeway here," said Tifani Henderson, sitting in the Diamond Street office as a steady stream of trucks rolled through the gates. "The trucks are lined up before sunrise when we open and at the end of the day, we can barely get the gates closed."
Diamond Street cautions the public that they don't take trash, but they gladly receive remnants from trees and shrubs ($5 per cubic yard); grass, leaves and clean wood ($3/cy); painted or treated wood ($10/cy); and concrete, gravel and mixed asphalt ($8 per pick-up). The wood is constantly being chipped and shipped to both large and small farming operations for cattle and horse bedding. Mulch, in five different colors, is picked-up or shipped-out, including to Diamond Street's newest customer, Boise State University.
"But it's our compost that is a huge seller," said Henderson, pointing to evenly cut rows of decomposing grass clippings and brush. "We lay it out and cook it for 90 days. We add a little bit of very fine wood chips and monitor the pH and nitrogen levels. We even supply it to the Idaho Botanical Garden all year. They order it by the truckloads. But it's available to anyone at $28 per cubic yard. We have a lot of little old ladies who want a small bucket or bushel of compost and we love when they come back to us again and again."
Chertudi said Boise's demographic of green-thinking customers covers both ends of the spectrum.
"Yes, we see a lot of older citizens who are big recyclers. They grew up with less, perhaps in the Depression," she said. "But the other group that we see a lot of interest from are college and high-school students. They really see the need to care for the future."
As for the immediate future, Chertudi said private operators such as Diamond Street do just fine but they simply couldn't handle a citywide compost facility. Since the Ada County Landfill is out of the question, it appears city officials are looking at Plan B.
That "B" stands for "biosolid," as in the 20-Mile South Biosolids Farm Site, 4,000 acres of city-owned land on South Cloverdale Road about 20 miles south of Boise.
Better known as TMSF, the facility receives the biosolids from the city's two main wastewater treatment plants. Treated biosolids are sold to farmers to help grow crops and, it turns out, nine acres of the site are unused and therefore being considered as a possible location for the city-run composting facility.
"This is very early in the process," said Journee, who quickly added that it's never too early for the city to champion more recycling efforts. "We're always talking about sustainability here and I know that everyone knows that we're continually talking about being the most livable city in the country. And that can mean a lot of different things to different people. But recycling is about being livable. So, yes this is part of that vision."
Chertudi said composting has been on the city's radar for some time now.
"For years we've offered composting classes for Boise residents," she said, "and we even sell composting bins."
The city and Republic Services sells 75-gallon "SoilSaver" composting bins for about $60.
"But we want to design a program that meets the needs of an incredibly broad range of customer," Chertudi added. "If indeed we go down this path, we have to have a program that works as well for someone who lives in a townhome or condo as someone in traditional home."
Should the composting concept become reality, the plan could include the public and city facilities having free access to the nutrient-rich compost, with the city selling about 50 percent of the materials to commercial operations.
According to an internal city document, curbside organics could be begin as early as March 2017.