2016-11-18 / Front Page

Compost pick-up to be tried in city

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Beginning this spring, South Portland will launch a yearlong pilot program to collect food waste at 593 homes in the Knightville and Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods, with an eye toward taking a curbside composting program citywide.

According to the city’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, who unveiled the project at a Monday, Nov. 14 city council workshop, a request for proposal will go out to local waste haulers over the winter. That contract might go to the current solid waste hauler for the city, Pine Tree Waste, or a new vendor, although pick up will be on the same day the regular garbage trucks go around.

“The last thing anyone wants is to try and juggle to remember which day is which,” Rosenbach said.

Between now and “hopefully in April,” when the pickup starts, Rosenback will embark upon a pubic education push aimed at convincing residents to separate their food waste into 6-gallon buckets provided by the city, which would be placed curbside alongside the blue recycling bins and regular trash cans for the Wednesday pickup. About 6 percent of homes on the Wednesday route will be part of the pilot program, Rosenbach said.

The reason for collecting food waste is to try and meet a longstanding city goal of diverting 40 percent of all solid waste into recycling, Rosenbach said. For the last six years, recycling in South Portland has plateaued at just less than 29 percent.

That puts South Portland about mid-pack among municipalities served by ecomaine at its waste-to-energy plant in Portland, behind Falmouth (46 percent), Portland (38 percent), Cape Elizabeth (35 percent), and Scarborough (32 percent). Rosenbach said she hopes to prop South Portland over the 40 percent line by 2020.

“Food waste is one of the last remaining segments of municipal solid waste to be diverted in order to reach this goal, and bring South Portland more in line with statewide leaders in waste diversion,” she said.

Under the pilot program, food waste would be taken to ecomaine for processing, which would separate any plastic bags, including single-use grocery bags used by residents to pack their scraps. From there, the food would go to Agri-Cycle Energy in Exeter. Unlike open air composting operations, Agri-Cycle Energy uses a process called anaerobic digestion – mixing the leftover food with manure produced at an on-site dairy farm under sealed domes – to capture gases emitted by the mix and burning them to create electricity. A bio-separator is then used to repurpose the remaining solids as odorless compost and animal bedding on at Stonyvale Farm, said to be the second largest dairy farm in the state.

According to Agri-Cycle Energy General Manager Dan Bell, the company can process up to 50,000 tons of food waste per year on its 4.5-acre site. Right now, he said, Agri-Energy is now putting out 23,000 kilowatt hours of energy daily, enough to power 800 homes per year. Plans are in place to increase the 1 megawatt engine to 3 megawatts by next summer, he said.

According to ecomaine CEO Kevin Roche, partnering with Agri-Cycle Energy made more sense than trying to process food waste on its own.

“We have a combustion plant, but burning tomatoes probably isn’t the most efficient way to process that material,” he said.

But Roche also noted the biggest problem with getting buy-in from residents and businesses for separating food waste and storing it separately until collection day.

“We knew we had to solve the ick factor in order to get mainstream participation,” he said.

Rosenbach said that is solved by the sealable collection cans, which will cost the city $5,444 to provide to residents. The city will buy 643 collection cans, in hopes some residents not on the pilot route will be willing to bring their food waste to the transfer station on Highland Avenue.

Because the automated arms on garbage trucks are not workable for containers smaller than 32 gallons, manpower will be needed for the collection route, she said. Combined with the cost of the cans, that will put the price tag of the yearlong pilot somewhere between $44,684 and $70,844, Rosenbach said. That money will come from a solid waste reserve fund that currently stands at about $120,000, she said.

Despite the cost, it’s worth trying to test the feasibility of a city wide program, because 29.9 percent of all trash collected in South Portland is food. At this time, the program will only collect food waste and not other organic items, such as leaves and grass clippings.

Additionally, the program costs could be mitigated by certain savings.

“The tipping fee for food waste is $55 (per ton) and the tipping fee for trash is $70.50,” Rosenbach said, referring to cost of shipping trash containers from the transfer station to ecomaine. “So, every ton that we divert to food waste will be a savings for us.”

But while all but one councilor met the proposal with enthusiasm, some, like Councilor Maxine Beecher, said the pass/fail on the project will be its bottom line.

“It’s about, ‘How much are my taxes going to go up?’ I hear that constantly,” she said.

Others questioned why Rosenbach singled out the Knightville and Meetinghouse Hill areas for the pilot. Many residents of those areas are already active backyard composters, Councilor Eben Rose noted. One of them, Councilor Patti Smith, said she would not participate in the program herself, for just that reason.

“It wasn’t entirely scientific,” Rosenbach said of the selection process. “We wanted to test two slightly different neighborhoods (already) on one (collection) route.

Rosenbach said the Ferry Village and Willard Square neighborhoods were not considered because of the number of people there already composting, either for gardens, or by paying commercial curbside collectors, such as Garbage to Garden and We Composte It.

“There are about 800 households who pay for curbside food waste composting, and there are also a significant number of people who are doing backyard composting, but these two options don’t work for everybody in South Portland and they’re not necessarily going to work to get us to our 40 percent recycling goal,” she said.

Councilor Linda Cohen said she predicts enthusiasm for taking the food collection to all parts of South Portland. One of her neighbors, she said, is a Garbage to Garden customer.

“I’m sure that eventually, once this makes it to the whole city, assuming it does, he’ll be very happy that he won’t be pay extra to have his garbage taken care of anymore.”

However, Rosenbach said she could not calculate what the program might cost if implemented citywide, either in terms of whole dollars, or as pennies on the mil rate in the annual city budget.

“We can define what we think are the costs of the pilot project, but pretty much not beyond that,” she said. “We’re thinking about this pilot in terms of two questions – is it feasible (logistically) to take this citywide, and will it help us meet our (recycling) goals?

“Our pilot project will tell us whether we have a lot more work to do, or if this is not a viable project,” she said.

The primary dissenter on the council was Mayor Tom Blake, who said that while he’d support the pilot program as a means of collecting data, he’d rather see Rosenbach put her public education dollars to use convincing people to engage in household composting, rather than simply collecting food for pick-up.

“I think there is a better direction,” he said. “I don’t understand why we are working on a program encouraging our residents to waste food. It seems to me to be a waste of resources to pick up the material and drive it 100 miles north to process it, when, in most cases, this material never needs to leave the homeowner’s property. I compost almost every thing and I have not bought potting soil in almost 10 years. I just don’t understand whey we are not putting our energies in that direction instead.”

“I don’t think they are mutually exclusive,” Rosenbach replied. “I think this program doesn’t mean we are encouraging people to put it out on the curb and not think about it. I’m definitely not wed to putting this (waste) in a bucket and forgetting about it. I just want everybody to have an opportunity to divert this waste.”

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