2017-03-10 / Front Page

City to pilot food waste collection

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

“It’s their choice whether they put it out on the curb. There are not any penalties or fines if they don’t.” “It’s their choice whether they put it out on the curb. There are not any penalties or fines if they don’t.” SOUTH PORTLAND — An idea that has been rattling around South Portland City Hall for several years will finally become a reality in May, when the city pilots composting as a public service.

At the Monday, March 6 city council meeting, councilors voted unanimously to spend $43,700 from a solid waste reserve account to hire Portland-based Garbage to Garden to conduct curbside pick up of organic food waste from Knightville and part of the Meeting House Hill neighborhood. The Meeting House Hill service area will be roughly bounded by Broadway, Ocean Street, South Richland Street and Sawyer Street, including streets on east side of Ocean above Sawyer as far as Spear Avenue.

As part of the service, to be rolled out during International Compost Awareness Week, May 7-13, the city will provide 593 homes in the pilot area with six-gallon buckets in which to sort food waste, to be set at the curb weekly along with regular trash and recycling. Food may be kept loose in the new buckets, or inside clear plastic bags, such as the ones obtained in supermarket produce departments.

“We will distribute a bin to every single household (in the pilot area),” said South Portland Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, during her presentation to the council. “It’s their choice whether they put it out on the curb. There are not any penalties or fines if they don’t.”

Rosenbach said Garbage to Garden was selected because it provided the most detailed plan, along with the lowest cost, of three bids for the yearlong pilot. However, councilors had to take her word for that, as neither the competing proposals from Pine Tree Waste or Agri-Cycle Energy, not their bottom line fees, was included in the information packet submitted by Rosenbach.

Garbage to Garden will charge $35,580 to transport food waste from target homes to the ecomaine waste-to-energy plant in Portland until April 30, 2018. It also will charge $2,9650 for the six-gallon buckets, and $475 to provide signage at the city transfer station on Highland Avenue, where residents outside the pilot area may drop off food waste. It also will charge $4,680 to send a separate truck twice per week to the transfer station.

Rosenbach said the city also will provide small countertop bins to homes in the pilot area, which residents can use to store food waste in before transferring it to the six-gallon curbside buckets. She said ecomaine would pick up half the cost of the small bins, but did not say how much they will cost, or what the city’s share will be. Whatever the cost, it was not included in the $43,700 appropriated by the city council Monday.

One other advantage the Garbage to Garden bid had over its competitors, Rosenbach said, is that it will provide regular monthly reports on its work via LiveRoute software on tonnage collected, participation rates, as well as feedback on non-food contaminants found in the collected material, service, requests, complaints and other resident feedback.

“By targeting outreach to those who are under-participating, we can measure and track the effectiveness of various outreach methods as well,” according to the Garbage to Garden proposal.

“That is the whole purpose of this pilot, outreach and education,” said Rosenbach, summing up her preference for the winning bid.

Rosenbach said one drawback of the proposal with Pine Tree Waste, which the city already handles curbside pickup of regular trash and recycling in South Portland, is that a 32-gallon food bucket was the smallest bin it could offer, for automated handling by its trucks.

“Since we are only doing food waste, we thought that is going to just present a host of problems with people throwing other things like yard waste in,” Rosenbach said, adding, “I’m a family of five and we don’t generate nearly that much food waste. So, I thought that bin is going to be just overwhelming for a couple of two.”

However, Councilor Susan Henderson suggested even the smaller six-gallon bucket might be too much of a good thing.

“I personally have very, very little food waste,” she said. “I can see where, in some cases it would not be cost-effective to collect this. You’d spend more in energy costs in the collection than you’d get out of it.”

“That’s part of the pilot program, to gather all of the data to see if it would be efficient to do this,” Public Services Director Doug Howard said.

Rising from the audience, planning board member Adrian Dowling asked why the proposal calls on Garbage to Garden to haul food waste to ecomaine in Portland, where it will then be taken to Agri-Cycle Energy plant in Exeter, where it will be run through anaerobic digesters to create electricity, as well as fertilizer and animal bedding for a nearby dairy farm. Given that Garbage to Garden has picked up food waste in South Portland since 2012, taking it to Benson Farm in Gorham where it is turned into compost and returned to customers, or sold to backyard gardeners, wouldn’t it be more efficient to follow the company’s existing model, Dowling asked.

“It seems like you’ve got a lot of handling and re-handling, and a lot of transporting and re-transporting,” he said.

“I would have to get some more information on that,” Howard said.

Rosenbach had a ready answer — the city has no choice in the matter.

“We still want to encourage people to do backyard composting and there’s nothing against sending (food waste) directly to a farm to be composted,” she said, “but we have a contract with ecomaine. We are a member community of ecomaine. Therefore, we are bound to send all of our waste to ecomaine.”

Rosenbach said Garbage to Garden had been allowed to operate in South Portland despite the city’s existing solid waste contracts because ecomaine did not sort food from the waste stream. However, it started doing so this past September after partnering with Agri-Cycle.

“The operative word here is ‘trial.’ We are in a trial period,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “If it isn’t effective, it won’t be rolled out citywide. But we don’t know that. The evidence looks promising, and so we are going with it.

“Are there inefficiencies in the system? Absolutely,” Morgan added. “But if it is efficient and it does tip the scale, it may lose those inefficiencies. We’ll see. We’ll have much more information in a year, or two years.”

Rosenbach also said she has kept tabs with Scarborough, which will launch a program of its own at the same time as South Portland.

“We are both rolling out food waste collection but we are doing it differently, so we are comparing what are the pros and cons of the way each if is doing it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Councilor Eben Rose said the Agri-Energy plant is a better option than traditional composting, because its anaerobic digesters – a biological process in which microorganisms break down organic material in the absence of oxygen, producing methane and other gases to burn for electricity – does not require the amount of sorting needed to make usable compost.

“One of the problems we have with programs like this, apart from getting people to comply with it, is having contaminants in the mix,” he said. “For people who may not be acclimated to a program like this and sort of presorting things on their own, as backyard gardeners surely are, this accommodates them very well.

“So, It’s completely sustainable apart from the transportation up there (to Exeter),” Rose said.

Rosenbach said ecomaine is able to automatically sort out certain plastic bags used to store food waste, making it a better option for some residents than traditional composting services.

“People talk about the ‘ick’ factor in a program like this, and not wanting to clean out the bin, or clean out the countertop thing, and so they do have a debagging machine (at ecomaine),” she said.

Rosenbach said she chose Knightville and a section of Meeting House Hill to be served by the pilot program after doing a ride-along with Pine Tree Waste and seeing “less than a dozen” Garbage to Garden bins set out. So, by starting there, it creates less disruption to the company’s existing residential composting service, she said.

Meanwhile, interim City Manager Don Gerrish said the program simply comes down to dollars and cents. While he did not have an estimate of how much the city might save overall, he noted that ecomaine charges $87 per ton for waste it takes in from South Portland, but will charge just $55 per ton for pre-sorted food waste.

“It was going there anyway and we’re going to get a lesser rate,” he said.

“They burn that, so there is certain a benefit to get the wet products out of the furnace,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said, explaining the price difference.

Even so, there was at least one person at Monday’s meeting who foresaw a potential downfall in the new service.

“My only concern is, when I see one of these bins now as I walk my dog in the neighborhood, is if the lid is not put on properly and it gets knocked over, you’ve got raccoons and all sort of animals and creatures at night,” Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte said. “So, if this was a proposal to give everybody one of these bins, I can see there could be a lot of mess in the streets.”

Still, part of the reason for launching the program in a limited area is to discover and correct for any pitfalls, said Mayor Patti Smith.

“I think it’s an interesting route to take,” she said. “There are a lot of positives. There may be some negatives or unintended consequences that we haven’t really thought or predicted, but we only know by trying. So, I think it’s important for us to give it a go.

“It’s a big wide world out there in food composting and food waste,” Smith said. “So, stay tuned. Many haulers are trying to noodle this question and I guess we are one of the guinea pigs right now in terms of this pilot program.”

However, on that note, if the program is successfully and extended citywide, there may be an entirely new set of problems for officials to wrap their heads around. After all, Howard said, a decision to extend the program form the pilot area to the city limits will require a new bid process.

“We went with Garbage to Garden to try to save money, not knowing if this is going to succeed or not,” Howard said. “If it did go citywide, it could be a completely different program.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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