May 2, 2018

A Finalist in Bloomberg Challenge, Princeton Tackles Food Waste

By Anne Levin

When it comes to using public funds for experimental projects, small cities like Princeton tend to play it safe. So testing out an ambitious idea for radically decreasing the town’s carbon footprint, through reducing and recycling food waste, would likely remain just that — an idea.

But thanks to a $100,000 infusion from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, Princeton is being encouraged to pursue such a plan. In February, the town was among 35 cities to be selected from 350 applicants across the nation as a finalist in the annual competition, which will culminate in a grand prize of $5 million for the winning city, and $1 million each for five runners-up. Final applications will be submitted in August.

The goal of the competition is to encourage bold thinking on how to confront tough, urban problems. Princeton was among the smallest locales to be named a finalist, or “champion city.” The list also includes Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, and Pittsburgh as well as smaller urban areas such as Cheyenne, Wyoming and Moreno Valley, California. Cities must have a population of at least 30,000 residents to apply. Princeton has approximately 31,000.

“It’s tremendous for the town,” said Mayor Liz Lempert, who is part of a team involved in a six-month testing phase of the original idea for diverting food waste from the landfill. “We were the only town in New Jersey to get in. I got a text from Gov. Murphy saying he was excited, and offering his encouragement and support.”

Partners in preparing the final application include project manager Matt Wasserman, former head of the Princeton Environmental Commission; project coordinator Judith Robinson, co-founder of the Princeton Farmers Market; Sustainable Princeton; Bob Hough, Princeton’s director of infrastructure and operations; Jeffrey Grosser, the town’s health officer; Princeton University; the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative; and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey.

“One thing we know, that we were told from the beginning, is that if your final application looks like your original application, you definitely won’t win,” said Wasserman. “A big part of this process is learning how you have to pivot to make your application stronger.”

Along with the $100,000 comes two coaches, one of whom specializes in “design thinking,” a process of creative problem solving. The other is focused on delivery of the idea — how to take it to actual implementation.

Princeton’s plan takes a cue from the existing Curbside Organic program, which collects and composts food and organic waste from residents, diverting it from the landfill. While the seven-year-old program is a start, “it doesn’t quite make the whole loop,” said Lempert. The proposed plan would look into the feasibility of installing a local food digester to turn the waste into compost for local farms, which would keep organics from landfills and help reduce emissions of methane gas.

“This is a a circular model, a reinvigorating circle, that can work for food waste,” said Robinson. “It’s something that needs to be looked at, and this is a great opportunity for that. Experimentation is so important.”

The team is studying past users of the Curbside Organic program, and 50 new users. Different technologies are being explored with the help of Princeton University. “We’ll be looking at technologies for what happens once it goes in the bucket, how clean we can get the stream that is coming from residents, and what types of farms might be taking the compost,” said Lempert.

The team is also exploring why so much food is thrown out, and how people can learn to purchase food more selectively so less is wasted. “It’s incredibly timely,” said Wasserman. “You can’t open the Times or the Journal without seeing an article on food waste. I think this puts us on the forefront.”

Competitors are encouraged to come up with an initiative that is flexible enough to apply to cities of different sizes. “They are interested in ideas that are scalable,” said Wasserman. “So a solution for a town of 30,000 could also work for a city of three million. Even big cities are divided into neighborhoods.”