What a Waste 

Analysis reveals a stunning amount of edible food and yard debris in Ada County landfill

Approximately 400 vehicles - large trucks from contracted haulers, private trucks from construction and demolition crews, and scores of individual citizens - dump waste into the Ada County Landfill every day.

George Prentice

Approximately 400 vehicles - large trucks from contracted haulers, private trucks from construction and demolition crews, and scores of individual citizens - dump waste into the Ada County Landfill every day.

The technical term is "edible food." The definition is all food--vegetables, fruit, bread, meat, pasta, cheese--that appears to be edible, or was at least edible when it was discarded. There is a lot of edible food at the Ada County Landfill. Tons of it. Thousands of tons even. According to a hot-off-the-press analysis, more than 53,000 tons of food waste is sent to the Ada County Landfill each year. More than 17,000 tons of it is "edible food."

That is one of a number of startling discoveries in the analysis, prepared for Ada County by South Prairie, Wash.-based Green Solutions, LLC. From yard debris, which may be the biggest stunner, to massive amounts of recyclable wood and carpeting, the bottom line is that way too many items are making their way to the 2,700-acre Ada County Landfill when they could be repurposed.

"I think I've read through this nearly 60 times already," said Sara Arkle, community conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "I can't tell you how excited we are that there's solid data that can help drive decisions for a more sustainable landfill. This analysis was done efficiently and effectively, and I would like to see that efficiency and effectiveness translate into actual projects and policy decisions."

In May 2014, Boise Weekly stood among the tons of garbage being pushed around what is known as the North Ravine Cell, a 281-acre mound of waste that is only one of 14 stages of the county landfill. Ada County was already knee-deep in what would be an historic analysis as teams of moon-suited auditors manually sorted tons of garbage, stroke-counting each piece by hand, in order to give Ada County the first odorous census of its trash. The analysis came in the wake of the Dynamis debacle: Ada County had paid Eagle-based Dynamis Energy $2 million to design a trash-to-energy facility. Lawsuits and investigations followed and in 2013, the county ultimately slinked away from the deal, swallowing the $2 million as a loss.

That was then.

"The first thing that struck me with this analysis is the level of transparency that we haven't seen in the past," said Arkle. "There's some great information here."

Dave Logan, director of Ada County Operations, which includes the landfill, couldn't be more pleased with what he says will be a collaborative analysis of the analysis.

"How we manage our solid waste in Ada County really needs to come from a community conversation," Logan told BW. "So the first thing we did was form a community advisory panel, including representatives from all of the cities; our providers, such as Republic Waste and Western Recycling; and members of the public, and we handed them this analysis. So, they've got a lot to consider," he said.

For example:

• We send 52,570 tons of yard debris to the Ada County landfill each year; 34,500 of those tons are from single-family homes in the city of Boise alone.

• 37,410 tons of wood ends up in the landfill each year.

• 33,280 tons of construction and/or demolition (C&D) materials pile up annually. Even more stunning, It's estimated that approximately 80 percent of C&D waste, including plywood, carpeting and roofing, is potentially recyclable.

"There's a number of things we can discuss on C&D," said Ted Hutchinson, the Ada County deputy solid waste director. "For example, maybe there's a piece missing in the building permit process, especially when there's a job where someone is tearing down and remodeling. Imagine attaching something to a permit where the builder needs to get their materials into a recycling facility so that all of that waste doesn't end up in the landfill. There's a real opportunity to get it back into the marketplace."

Logan said metals provide another bit opportunity: Each year, around 16,000 tons of cans and mixed metals end up in the landfill.

"Imagine that when a truck pulls into our facility, we might be able to direct them to a stop-off point where they could drop of their metals before heading to the big landfill," Logan said.

The real bombshell, though, was the food. To the person, everyone BW spoke with was taken aback by the amount of edible food waste.

"That was the one real big surprise for me," said Hutchinson. "It's really something to see how much usable food there is in the landfill. A lot of people still don't understand that there's a big difference between the sell-by date, which is directed to the store owner, and the use-by date, which is directed to the consumer. A lot of that food hasn't reached the use-by date. You're throwing away something with a lot of value."

Food waste and yard debris could be readily coupled for composting. Logan and Hutchinson said the new advisory council may want to talk more about the possibility of creating a giant composting facility at the landfill.

At Boise City Hall, some people are already talking about a city-driven plan to create so-called "curbside composting," which could introduce a separate bin for compost materials.

"Yes, we're doing some preliminary analysis of a curbside composting program," said Steve Burgos, environmental engineer for the city of Boise. "The mayor and Council are certainly interested, but we're at a very early stage of looking at the finances. We have to make sure it's economically feasible before we turn to the ratepayers to see if they're interested."

Burgos, a member of the new advisory council, was one of the first people to get his hands on the landfill analysis.

"This is a great first step toward helping us understand how we can better set goals toward waste reduction," he said. "The most exciting part of this is how many opportunities there are for improvement."

Meanwhile, at Ada County headquarters, Logan was a pretty happy man as he considered the number of possible ways to better manage our waste.

"I wouldn't be terribly surprised [if] in the next 12 months, you'll see some very serious discussions about recycling, repurposing and overall better decisions at the consumer level," said Logan. "Right now, the No. 1 agenda item is a green waste program."

Items considered "green" would include all of the food that's being tossed out.

"Holy cow," said Arkle. "It's hard to fathom what [106 million pounds] a year looks like. And that's the total edible and inedible food. It's so extraordinarily large."

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