January 23, 2019

Curbside Composting  Suspended While Town Refigures Program

By Anne Levin

On Wednesday, January 30, participants in Princeton’s Curbside Organics Program will put their cans of materials out for pick up for the last time — or at least until the town figures out the best way to continue the program following a three-month hiatus.

Mayor Liz Lempert announced last week that the program, which began in 2011, is temporarily suspended due to problems with Solterra, the current hauler. It turns out that the food waste was not always being taken to a farm for composting, as was originally planned. Instead, it was sometimes going to a landfill.

Compounding the problem, when the town sought bids from contractors to continue the program for the next two years, the only company to provide a bid was the same one currently being used — at double the price. “As a result, the program’s cost to participants and the municipality would double with no guarantee that pick-up service will improve, or that our food waste won’t be incinerated or landfilled,” Lempert wrote to participants, who are paying $65 a year for the service. Some 800 families have been enrolled.

Among the options being explored is having the hauling done “in house,” Lempert said, meaning the material would be picked up by the town. “But the question is where to take it,” she said during a press conference last week. “A farm, or some sort of processing facility? We don’t know yet. But we’re committed to coming up with a program that works.”

This isn’t the first snag the town has encountered with the composting program. Last fall, it was announced that it was at
risk because participants were routinely including plastic bags and utensils in the waste. As a result, the material was going to an incinerator in Tullytown, Pa., instead of to a composting facility..

Princeton was the first town in New Jersey to start a composting program. The municipality was also among 35 finalists in a recent initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, working with researchers from Princeton University in hopes of winning $5 million to build a local waste facility. The town did not win the final grant. “But the process provided us with valuable insight and data,” Lempert said in announcing the suspension.

Meanwhile, there are measures residents can take while the composting program is being re-evaluated. In addition to backyard composting, reducing food waste in the home kitchen is an effective way to tackle the problem, according to Sustainable Princeton, which sent an email to patrons following the announcement of the hiatus.

“Feed people before we feed landfills,” the organization’s executive director Molly Jones said last week. “If there is a silver lining here, it’s that we hope residents look at what they can do to reduce the amount of food waste they are producing. There should be better meal planning. There are apps out there that can give you a recipe to use what’s already in your fridge.”

Program Director Christine Symington added, “Look at things in your kitchen that you throw out the most frequently, and try to eliminate that.”

Jones and Symington said they were not surprised by the announcement of the hiatus in the composting program. “There have been unfortunate bumps in the road,” said Jones. “The reality is that the maturity of the compost industry in New Jersey hasn’t been growing at the rate we would love to see. Princeton was first, but all of our hopes that there would be a growing market for where the stuff would end up have not been realized. At the state level, though, they are looking at food waste and creating more opportunities, so we’re hopeful.”

Symington added, “Being an early adopter is always a challenge. There was indication that the composting infrastructure would be expanding, but it hasn’t been at the pace you would need. There was supposed to be a facility at Duck Island. We thought the state would develop its food recycling infrastructure, and it just didn’t happen fast enough.”

Jones said she has “great confidence” that Mayor Lempert, Princeton Council, and the town’s Public Works department want to find a solution to the composting problem. “They truly want this to be just a hiatus,” she said. “They are working very hard to come up with a new solution. I think it was very reasonable of them to make the call. It wasn’t financially viable and it wasn’t meeting the environmental goals that were the intent of the program.”