September 12, 2018

Curbside Composting Program In Jeopardy Because of Plastic

By Anne Levin

Princeton’s organic waste program, in which food and other organic materials are supposed to go to a composting facility, is currently at risk because participants are routinely including plastic bags and utensils in the waste. As a result, the material has been going to an incinerator in Tullytown, Pa., for the past several months.

Those enrolled in the program, who pay $65 a year, were informed of the situation via an email last Saturday. Mayor Liz Lempert, who learned of the problems two weeks ago, wrote that Princeton’s composting bins contain too much prohibited material to be accepted at the farm utilized by the town’s hauler, Solterra.

“I regret that we did not learn about this situation sooner, so we could share information with you,” she wrote. “We have spoken to the hauler and to Mercer County Improvement Authority, which oversees municipal waste handling, about improving communication so we are able to keep program participants fully informed.”

Approximately 800 households are part of the program, Lempert said on Tuesday. A farm in Pottstown, Pa., has been identified as a possible solution to the problem, and a trial delivery was sent there last week. “Clearly, we need to do a better job working with our composters to improve the content of our food waste in order to keep this important program viable,” she wrote. “Discussions continue with the Pottstown farm, and, with your help, we hope to demonstrate our food waste stream is clean enough to be a valuable resource.”

Princeton was the first town in New Jersey to start a compost program. “While it is exciting and rewarding to be a pioneer, the downside is that there are often bumps along the way to innovation,” Lempert said. “It is critical that we address the problem of contamination, so that our food waste can be recycled into a valuable soil enrichment, and so that other towns can benefit from our work on this critical environmental problem.”

Lempert urges residents to keep plastic items out of the compost buckets, and to use paper grocery or compostable bags with the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) seal on the box. They are available at McCaffrey’s Market, Whole Earth, Ace Hardware, and on line. A full list of acceptable materials is posted on the municipal website

Princeton was one of 35 finalists in a program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Working with a research team from Princeton University, the town is waiting to hear if it will receive up to $5 million to build a local waste composting facility. About 100 households have expressed interest in a free test program.

Lempert said she has received a lot of feedback since sending the letter to participants. “Long term, we are working on a permanent and sustainable solution to build a model, local facility,” she wrote. “The difficulties we’ve seen over the past few months reinforce that need. If we are unable to find a suitable solution, we would look to get a refund from our hauler and possibly close the program until we have the right system up and running.”