Seattle takes a deep breath and braces for another putrid spring

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, May 1998

Mulch Madness
Seattle takes a deep breath — and braces for another putrid spring
By Lolly Merrell

Stepping onto the porch of his home one morning last spring, State Representative Brian Thomas leaned back in his slippers, inhaled the fresh air, and gagged uncontrollably on the stench wafting on the breeze. "It was the worst smell you can imagine," recalls the Seattle Republican, with a shudder. "It permeated everything: furniture, the whole house. It was god-awful."

An olfactory affront of this magnitude is typically tied to noxious industries like, say, corporate hog farming. But the smell that invaded Thomas's neighborhood a year ago — and that will probably soon stage a malodorous reprise, now that springtime is upon the Pacific Northwest — has a more benign source: compulsive composting. No city in America takes mulch as seriously as Seattle, where people have been known to sport T-shirts that read, "A rind is a terrible thing to waste." Putting that ethic into practice, residents last year saved more than 600 million pounds of grass clippings, potato peels, lettuce leaves, and the like — a 25 percent increase over the previous year and, as people swiftly discovered, a recipe for rancidness.

As local composting operations bent to the task of processing the extra ordure, an evil miasma descended over the city. Plant operators responded by cranking up high-tech filtration systems and spraying industrial-strength perfume powder fashioned from enzymes and dehydrated vinegar. Alas, it was a losing battle. By the end of the summer, the King County pollution-control hot line had received 2,000 complaints, and Thomas was furiously drafting what could become the first anticomposting legislation in American history, designed to shut down any plant that fails to act on odor objections.

If an ammended version of the bill passes next year (the 1997 version stalled in committee), it could impose yet another layer of irony onto an already intoxicating subject. With even fewer plants to handle the waste, things seem bound to get smellier before they get better. "People in Seattle love their compost," says Thomas, shooting a wary glance in the direction of his neighborhood's operation, "but if that plant fumbles this spring, all hell's gonna break loose."

Illustration by David Miller

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