The process of composting is one of the most important aspects of gardening and agriculture.

Composting is defined as the intentional decomposition of plant and animal matter by various bacteria, fungi, and insects. In farming (urban and rural), composting is a highly economical method of converting unused organic matter into a valuable product that builds and enriches the soil.

Salem residents currently benefit from curbside pickup of yard debris carts, the contents of which are composted at Allied Waste’s Processing and Recovery Center just north of Corvallis.

In November 2009, Allied Waste launched a food waste composting pilot project with 15 businesses in Corvallis and four businesses in Salem. The goals of this project are to see how businesses respond to the composting option and determine what materials can be composted.

“As soon as the bin came in, it was immediately successful,” says Debra Edwards, co-owner of Cascade Baking Company. “We filled it with so many things, and my staff was so excited that they came up with things they could do as well. They all jumped on the bandwagon.”

Cascade Baking Company keeps one 90-gallon roll-cart in the back of the bakery. Since starting the program in February, they’ve cut their garbage output significantly.

The Salem Conference Center is also taking part in the trial, investing in biodegradable bags and replacing a dumpster with eight roll-carts.

“Food is the heaviest thing that we throw away,” says Chrissie Bertsch, general manager of the Salem Conference Center. “Since we could find efficiencies and be a part of a better program for taking care of our environment, it was a no-brainer.”

Not only can these businesses compost food products, but employees can throw paper towels, biodegradable utensils, cardboard, and parchment paper right into the bin.

“We’re playing with those different materials right now to see what is working within our system,” says Brian May of Allied Waste Services. “We haven’t seen them not break down yet, so we’re having quite a bit of good luck with those [materials].”

Allied Waste trucks retrieve the prospective compost each week from several participating businesses. When the trucks arrive at the Processing and Recovery Center, the load is dumped into a large pile. The materials are then loaded into a machine that grinds everything down to a manageable size. Wood chips are added to the mixture to achieve the proper moisture content. Finally the soon-to-be potting soil is covered with black plastic, and treated with warm air to accelerate the composting process.

“We’re trying to compost in a 30-45 day window,” says May.

The finished compost is sold at the facility, priced by the yard.

Why is this important? It’s estimated that 15 percent of all garbage is derived from food waste. If executed on a large scale, food-waste composting could prevent an enormous amount of waste from being dumped into landfills.

The Salem City Council approved moving forward on a plan to begin offering the service this summer. A public hearing will be held on May 17. The City of Keizer is considering a similar plan.

Nate Rafn produces a television series about local foods entitled “Living Culture” on KWVT Willamette Valley, CCTV Salem, PCM TV Portland, and SCAN TV Seattle. Visit www.livingcultureonline.com.