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    Getting down to business: Seattle's new trash district

    With a new LEED Gold transfer station, Seattle's getting serious about garbage. Its composting system, though, still needs work.

    Spring is here and Seattle's thoughts turn to the sweet smell of … compost. The city council has approved plans for trucking our compostables to an as-yet undetermined location over the mountains in Kittitas County.

    The debate over the final resting place of our food scraps has turned out to be controversial. Some folks near Cle Elum were not happy with an earlier proposal that would have dumped Seattle's organic waste in their scenic, pine-scented backyard. Such processing sites can be rather smelly. The contractor says it will move the compost to a more acceptable spot, away from scenic Elk Heights and the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway.

    The controversy over Kittitas County composting raises an interesting issue – timely too, as Seattle opens its new $76 million transfer station in South Park to the public this month. That is, how should Seattle deal with its own recycling and garbage? Is it fair to turn our kitchen and garden waste into a trans-Cascade export?

    Gone are the days when we dumped all our garbage into landfills at places like Lake Washington's Union Bay, with its clouds of smoke and skirling seagulls. We've changed and garbage has changed. We sort and recycle curbside and we transport our waste to indoor transfer stations, where it is sifted, ground and put into shipping containers. We separate, we compost, we dump.

    Our goal is zero waste, but we're still a long way from that. Last year, 320,000 tons of our garbage were shipped by train to a landfill in eastern Oregon. On top of that, the city sends out 95,000 tons of compostables and private contractors send out another 43,000 tons for processing in the countryside.

    The outmoded transfer stations in South Park and Fremont are concrete boxes with a pit inside, into which we take pleasure in tossing what we don’t want. We had the satisfaction of watching an old sofa crack as it hit the bottom of the pit; we heard the grind of a bulldozer mashing our garbage into bits in the dim interior light. Sometimes there was smoke from fires ignited in the trash. It is deliciously chaotic, with rats, pigeons and crows scavenging — a bit like a lesser ring of Dante's hell.

    The new South Park transfer station has an entirely different feel. Instead of a dark box, it is a vaulted, skylighted hangar. Outside are sculptures, creatively made from old parts of the South Park Bridge, a kind of advertisement for recycling and reuse. A painting on the south side of the facility by the highway sports a mural of the snaking old Duwamish River before it was straightened for industry. The building looks like it could be an Ikea or Whole Foods.

    Inside it is light, airy. There are bays for sorting, recycling and dealing with hazardous household waste. From the high ceiling, a gentle spray of water descends. Timothy Croll, Director of Solid Waste for Seattle Public Utilities, jokes, "It's just like the misting aisle at Queen Anne Thriftway." The fine spray helps with the stink, suppressing odor-carrying dust.

    On one side, there are offices and a bank of windows, where visiting tour groups can watch the whole process of garbage dumping and sorting. This was an amenity the South Park community wanted. Dumps are still entertaining, but now more educational and environmental. The facility is built to a LEED Gold standard.

    Gone, however, is the pit. In its place is a flat concrete floor onto which waste is dumped into heaps and pushed into one of two holes. The garbage drops into massive trash compactors, which weigh and press their contents into just the right shape and size. Then their contents – a kind of garbage loaf – is pushed into a shipping container to be trucked to a nearby railyard.

    This part of south Seattle is a garbage nexus. There are the two public transfer stations, new and old, and eventually there will be a new recycling facility. There is also a private commercial transfer station and businesses that recycle old building parts and the like — not to mention other industrial neighbors.

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    Posted Fri, Apr 5, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Not really sure what's best for our compost, Knute, but let's not be too quick to poo-poo (so to speak) the idea of sending it to farmland. The numbers may or may not pencil out. But we should consider it right and proper -- not foolish on the face of it -- to cycle nutrients back to where our food is grown.

    Sea Wolf

    Posted Fri, Apr 5, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

    Most of our food isn't grown around here anymore, and that's a big part of the problem. Time was, when we had farmland from South Park all the way up the Green River Valley. Now it's mostly paved over. On the East side of King County there are still some farms, on the flood plain, Duvall to Fall City. Pricey farmland hereabouts! Then again, since this pungent stuff is heading to Kittitas County already, why not keep it going just a bit further, to Yakima County? We can grow some killer veggies over there.

    Posted Sat, Apr 6, 5:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Not so fast.This might give Forterra pause—farmland more valuable as farmland than subdivision, economists the last to know, let alone know why:



    Posted Sat, Apr 6, 7:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    A pox on NIMBY's (or better put anyone else but me)

    I do not see why we in Seattle have the right to send our trash to someone else.
    If our trash is so cumbersome then
    1. Stop buying packaging YOU pay for ie that pretty box (dead trees) or pretty plastic (came from oil or oh lawzy COAL) then you have to pay to get rid of it.
    2. Put in a trash burner that can filter out and or burn everything down to just CO2 and water. Lime kilns can work well for this
    3. Use land we cannot use otherwise such as the land around SeaTac flght path for composting

    CROSSCUT your attention please
    get rid of the captcha. I tire of hyroglific games. will not contribute until you rid me of this.


    Posted Sat, Apr 6, 5:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Handling organic waste and dealing with it in our own backyard is more responsible than the current outsourcing system."

    You mean burning compost and food scraps along with all the rest of the trash, not actually conducting one's own composting in Seattle's soon-to-be-outlawed backyards? "Outlawed," is but a small exaggeration— Councilmember(s) had to ask "what are back yards for anyway" and pretty much agreed with planners disparagements as unaffordable extravagances unworthy of a world-class city. Heaven help us.


    Posted Sun, Apr 7, 6:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    What is missing from Seattle's handling of waste is any sense of frugality. While the citizens and the most of rest of government deals with the shock of the great recession, Seattle Public Utilities Solid Waste can spend what it likes knowing it has a captive audience that has no choice but to pay whatever the city demands. The new South Park transfer station should have been built to do its job economically and effectively and not as an obscene monument to the excesses of Seattle's government.

    If SPU really wanted to improve the percentage of waste that was recycled, they would drop the cost of the smallest garbage bins dramatically so that they were subsidized by the those with a bigger bins rather than making the savings so small that few people bother to downsize. However, it is unlikely this will happen because it might actually work in which case SPU solid waste would have to downsize and run their operation on a leaner budget.

    As for Knute's philosophical preference for Seattle to dealing with its own organic waste, I am fully in agreement not for philosophical but rather for capitalistic reasons. Indeed, if it was an incentivized option, I would go one better by eliminating all transport costs and starting my own smell free compost heap in my backyard . Unfortunately there is no incentive because SPU is more interested in protecting its revenue stream by requiring everyone to pay for yard waste pick up, again with only a modest saving to go from a large to a micro container.


    Posted Mon, Apr 8, 9:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    WSDW, you talk of frugality. How can that be part of the conversation when the transfer station dump cost taxpayers more than $76 million, and consists of a huge building with 2 holes in the floor?

    Posted Tue, Apr 9, 12:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    I think if you actually take the time read what I wrote you will find that I agree with you. It is outrageous that SPU has built this extravagant transfer station for such a utilitarian task.


    Posted Wed, Apr 10, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    I ran some numbers when the information about tons per year, and amount per ton that Seattle would be paying the contractor first came out, it came to $1333 per semi load. However, the trucking will cost $2.50 per mile, so to come to Yakima County it would cost $1000 per load. Bulk compost is around $30.00 per ton, a good operation should get 75% salable compost. It MIGHT be a good business to be involved in.


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