How food waste is fueling an effort to change Columbia’s decades-old waste hauling law

Rana Bains, owner of Fulton-based Bluebird Composting, has been trying to convince Columbia officials to let his company collect food waste from city businesses for years.

Bains said the local market for compost has boomed since his company first opened in 2012. That has allowed Bluebird to expand its operations across 20 different Missouri cities, and sell its products in at least 33 stores, he said, including several in Columbia.

Currently, Bluebird collects about 300 to 400 tons of food waste every month, Bains said, and typically charges businesses between $25 and $30 per ton to collect material. Soon, he hopes to expand those efforts into Columbia.

But in order for Bains to do that, the city would need to update its nearly 60-year-old ordinance that requires waste haulers to be agents of Columbia — a law Bains has long rallied to end.

That effort could make some progress. At the city’s Environment and Energy Commission meeting Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously to support a proposal and request that the Columbia City Council ask the city’s legal department to draft changes to the law. Once that’s done, officials said, the council can officially vote on the matter.

So far, that proposal has been met with some skepticism, but it’s also gaining traction.

“The Environment and Energy Commission supports the changes,” said Ken Midkiff, the commission’s chair. “I look at benefits to the environment. What is being treated as waste and ending up in the landfill will be used for beneficial purpose.”

However, in an Aug. 6 memo to the council, city staff seemed to emphasize concerns about changing the law.

“These and other solid waste ordinances were created in the early 1960s, because private hauling companies were not properly collecting and disposing of garbage and other solid waste in Columbia,” the memo said.

“Restricting the collection of food waste to City vehicles helps ensure that solid waste collection services are provided in the most efficient manner possible while minimizing the overall number of collection vehicles within Columbia,” it continued, “thus minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on city roadway system.”

Barbara Buffaloe, Columbia’s sustainability manager, said the city is already considering expanding its own composting program. Since 2012, Columbia has collected food waste from restaurants and other businesses, turning it into compost that the city sells locally.

That program has diverted an average of 359 tons of food waste from the landfill each year, according to the city memo. But demand for it dropped significantly last year, when only 255 tons were collected, raising concerns that bringing in private haulers could be met with dwindling interest.

The cost for a private hauler like Bluebird to collect the food waste would be comparable to what the city is already charging. Columbia charges $86.15 for every 2 cubic yards of food waste produced each week. That translates to about $30 per ton per week, with prices becoming cheaper at higher waste volumes.

Buffaloe also said there are monetary factors to weigh if and when the council takes up the matter. That includes the operational cost the city might avoid if food waste is diverted from the landfill, and also the revenue that would be lost if the methane generated from food waste is no longer getting captured by the city’s bioreactor.

In 2008, Columbia constructed a landfill bioreactor, which captures methane gas and converts it to usable energy. Last year, Columbia generated 16,676 megawatt hours of electricity from landfill gas, which equates to about 1.4 percent of the city’s energy and a savings of about $915,000.

But another city report estimates a steeper cost for allowing food waste to go to Columbia’s landfill. Last year, more than 17 percent of the waste entering the city’s landfill was food, or about 34,000 tons. The operational cost of taking that ran Boone County residents more than $1.7 million, the report said.

Steve Callis, a Columbia resident and avid composter, wrote the draft for the law change being proposed to the council. Callis said any food waste going into the city’s landfill is a missed opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support local, eco-friendly businesses that convert organic trash into compost that can then be sold to farmers, gardeners and landscapers.

“These proposals have been presented to the city council; they’ve been presented to this commission. They’ve also been proposed to the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District,” Callis said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re trying to move forward and bring this before council for a vote.”

Callis is asking city officials to amend that law to simply exempt private organic waste haulers.

Bains said he’s confident Columbia will change its ordinance, and he’s already arranged talks with city officials to propose potential arrangements for the future. “I’m excited about it. I’m so excited,” he said. “Columbia people, they really need this.”

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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