Getting down to business: Seattle’s new trash district

Credit: Photo: Anthony Harris, Seattle Public Utilities

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.

Garbage will be a major industry here for awhile; the new transfer station is designed to meet our needs for the next 50 years. There's nothing close by that looks particularly gentrifiable either, unlike neighboring Georgetown with its great old Brewery Gothic architecture.

SPU wanted to build a third transfer station south of Georgetown back in the Greg Nickels era, but hit major opposition from the neighborhood, which was becoming hip and desirable. People didn't want more traffic – or the stink. And some, including City Council's Richard Conlin, questioned the need for another station. The push instead was to recycle more. Instead of three stations, Seattle will eventually have two modern facilities, one each north and south.

Building the new transfer station in South Park was an easier sell because there was already one in the neighborhood, says Croll, who managed the process of community engagement. And the new transfer station promises to be an improvement over the old one. It'll be cleaner, less fragrant, certainly nicer to look at. SPU also agreed to aggressively patrol illegal dump sites in the area.

Eventually, the city will shut down the old South Park station, once it has replaced the old north station in Fremont (under design now). In exchange for that upgrade, Fremont will get a new park. But, can you imagine trying to site a transfer station in Fremont today if there wasn't already one there?

It is a common complaint in Seattle that NIMBYs are standing in the way of progress, but how does that jibe with the city's dumping its waste elsewhere? Aside from the tons going into landfills, couldn't we handle our own compost here instead of hauling it to Kittitas? As we push for density and growth, it seems we also ought not to be fobbing the stuff off on rural neighbors, just because they have looser zoning restrictions.

Some cities (San Jose, Toronto) ship tons of organic waste to local anaerobic digestion facilities, which turn it into compost, fertilizer and renewable energy. Harvest Power, a Massachusetts-based company, is developing "the first commercial-scale high solids anaerobic digester (HSAD) facility in Canada" in Richmond, B.C. outside Vancouver. (There's a good explanatory video of the process here.)

Seattle has explored this in the past, but it's more expensive per ton than shipping the stuff out of town for open-air processing.

Still, Hans Van Dusen, the city's solid waste contracts manager, says the proposal he examined did rank well when analyzed for sustainability. The power produced can be used to run generators or as a bio-fuel. The BC project hopes to produce enough megawatts "to power more than 900 lower mainland homes." Plus, the process produces compost as a byproduct, which can be sold to local farms and gardeners.

The downside, Van Dusen says, is that such facilities get low marks here when it comes to permitting and siting. Could one ever get built here?

From a philosophical standpoint, Seattle ought to explore this option further. Handling organic waste and dealing with it in our own backyard is more responsible than the current outsourcing system. Such things don't happen overnight, of course: The new South Transfer Station was 15 years or so in the thinking, planning and building. The city would likely have to overcome the predictable knee-jerk objections to such a plant. Certainly though, as a matter of policy, one could argue that it should at least be as easy to site such a plant in Seattle's industrial zones as it is to build high-rises in South Lake Union or basketball arenas in SoDo.

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