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Stinking Up the Great Outdoors

In one Pacific Northwest town, is the stench of recycling making the local residents sick?

My hometown stank. Literally.

Everett, Washington, a Puget Sound mill town 31 miles north of Seattle, prospered from the 1930s to the 1970s thanks in part to three pulp and paper mills that pumped out rotten-egg vapors morning, noon, and night. "Smells like money," my elders said. I'd always considered that a clever local witticism. Then I made my way into the wider world and realized it was an ancient adage -- Pecunia non olet ("Money does not stink"), said the Roman emperor Vespasian. What we didn't know then, or chose to ignore, was that the stench went hand in hand with sulfite waste liquors and sludge deposits that were poisoning Puget Sound.

Recently a new fragrance arose in Everett and Marysville, its northern neighbor. Local residents are complaining about the god-awful smell coming from a factory on the edge of town. What's unusual is the source. It's a soil composting facility -- a reminder that environmental progress isn't a one-time, problem-solved kind of thing.

Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest treasure the rich, organic spreadables from Cedar Grove, a compost company. Cedar Grove obtains its raw material from Seattle, whose residents have recycled their yard waste for decades. Since 2004 Cedar Grove has trucked the clean-green tonnage to Everett, where it's allowed to degrade in outdoor mounds. Clippings in, compost out. For a time, olfactory tranquillity reigned.

Then came the food waste. In 2009 Seattle began requiring residents of single-family homes to recycle their kitchen scraps. What once smelled like sweet grass clippings began to stink like rotting garbage.

In an earlier era, town officials would have told the complainers to lump it. "The smell of money!" But medical researchers know more now about what they call malodor and its effect on the mind and body. Chief among their findings is that air pollution doesn't have to be toxic to be harmful.

Our olfactory system has the ability to flood the body with intense sensations, whether it's the nostalgic pleasure of a Christmas tree or the repulsive reflex of vomit. Our sense of smell also acts as one of the body's warning devices. The odor of rotten food prevents us from poisoning ourselves, just as the scent of smoke alerts us to the presence of fire. So it shouldn't come as a shock to discover that unpleasant odors, no matter how benign, can trigger physiological reactions.

The growth of stench-spewing industrial hog farms in the 1990s gave rise to studies of the effects of malodor on nearby residents. They reported headaches, nausea, fatigue, increased anxiety and stress, and the loss of the simple pleasure of stepping outdoors. Scientists found that malodor can be an environmental stressor as powerful as noise, heat, or crowds.

In a 2009 article in the International Journal of Neuroscience, Rachel Herz of Brown University Medical School brought the term aromachology -- the data-based study of odor effects -- into scientific use. Herz believes that odor acts as a psychological trigger. "The chemical nature of the odorant" plays a secondary role, she writes. It's the "meaning of the aroma that induces the consequent psychological and/or physiological responses."

In other words, my elders in Everett didn't merely tolerate the pulp mill stink as the unpleasant price to be paid for family-wage jobs. It might actually have pleased them because it was associated in their minds with prosperity.

Modern-day residents of Everett and Marysville seem to have enjoyed -- or at least tolerated -- the bittersweet smell of composting yard waste as the fragrance of clean, green recycling. With the addition of kitchen scraps, though, the decomposing mounds took on a scent associated with something primitively bad: rotting food. Evolution has trained our brains to interpret that as an alarm.

Cedar Grove executives are now negotiating with city and state officials to put an end to the malodorous affair. Those in the odor-control industry are invited to visit my old hometown and size up this unique business opportunity. It's easy to find. Just drive northwest until you smell it.

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >
Toilets stink. Let’s get rid of them. Wait I just went into my bathroom and the toilet didn’t stink! But just like all compost all toilets stink. Right? So why didn’t mine stink? And why doesn’t my worm bin stink? And as a teacher we had a worm composter in my classroom and it didn’t stink. And where I live – in a 28 household cohousing community – we have a huge compost pile and gosh, guess what? It doesn’t stink! Someone needs to do a little research – like the author of this article – on composting. Get out of Everett and check out the compost piles in the rest of the world! If done properly compost piles do not stink. In fact, the first sign that you are doing something wrong is that they stink. If they stink then fix it. Composting is something we should all be doing. And it’s not that hard to find out how to do it. Maybe the author could do a little research (I say a little cause it is obvious he didn’t do any) and write another article on how to compost. Then show Cedar Grove how easily it can be done. And on the way to compost enlightenment if you find one stinky toilet it doesn’t mean they're all stinky.