September 18, 2018

Resident Is Concerned About Town’s Recycling and Composting Program

To the Editor:

I’m wondering what is happening with the recycling and composting programs in Princeton. As I walk around town, I see more and more “non recyclable” items in the yellow bins such as styrofoam, plastic shopping bags, and pizza boxes. We know this pollutes the stream and often necessitates that a greater percentage just gets rerouted to the landfill. Also, I see fewer and fewer new green composting bins on the street and realize that I haven’t received anything in years asking me to join the composting program or reminding me of what can and can’t be recycled and composted. I know this information is available on the township website, but judging from simple observation I don’t think many residents are even aware of that.

I know that the management of the programs has changed hands and I wonder if whoever is in charge of them now even cares about the results or the value of these programs to the community and our environment. I know for a fact that their predecessor did, because I volunteered my time and worked with her to increase awareness and expand participation.

Since I began drafting this letter a lot has apparently changed, not for the better. In an email from the mayor to the composting participants, we have been notified that the program is in jeopardy of being terminated because of “repeated contamination” of the composting shipments to the processing facility.

We are being told that the town just found out about this despite the fact that the hauler apparently knew months ago. Why would it take so long for those running the program to inform the participants? People are participating in this program because we want to, not because it is mandatory like recycling. Don’t you think adjustments would have been made immediately?

Bottom line is something stinks in the recycling and composting programs in Princeton and those currently in change are doing little to clear the air.

My questions are where’s Janet? And why isn’t she running the program anymore?

Just one resident wondering out loud.

Bob Rabner

Christopher Drive

Editor’s Note: After being shown the letter above, the mayor sent Town Topics the email in question.

Dear Resident,

I’m writing today with some good news and some bad news regarding our organics recycling program. The good news is that the municipality and a research team from Princeton University have been working together on an exciting initiative, funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, to bring Princeton’s food waste program to the next level. We are one of 35 national finalists and are waiting to hear whether we will receive up to $5M to build a local food waste composting facility.

The bad news is that two weeks ago, we learned that Princeton’s composting bins contain too much prohibited material – mostly traditional plastic garbage bags and “compostable” utensils – to be accepted at the farm utilized by our hauler. Since being notified of this several months ago, the hauler has been taking Princeton’s material to the waste-to-energy incinerator in Tullytown, Pa., in Lower Bucks County.

In working with the hauler to find a suitable location for our food waste, we identified a farm in Pottstown, Pa., and sent a trial delivery last week. However, this arrangement is at risk because of the number of plastic bags in last week’s trial delivery. 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. 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.

I regret that we did not learn about this situation sooner, so we could share information with you. 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.

Our award-winning curbside compost program was the first in New Jersey. While it is exciting and rewarding to be a pioneer, the downside is that there are often bumps along the way to innovation. 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.

Long term, we are working on a permanent and sustainable solution to build a model, local facility. 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.

In the meantime, please do not place plastic items in the compost buckets! Use paper grocery bags and/or compostable bags with the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) seal on the box. These bags are available at McCaffreys, Whole Earth, Ace, and online. Keep all utensils out of your bins as well. Even utensils marked as compostable do not break down quickly enough and are not allowed. A full list of acceptable materials is posted on the municipal website.

Thank you for your participation in this this program. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, my door is always open.

Liz Lempert