May 1, 2019

Composting Program May Be Restarting Soon

By Donald Gilpin

After a few setbacks that brought the Curbside Organic Program to a temporary suspension in February, local residents and public officials are determined to restart Princeton’s composting program as soon as possible.

“We’re working on an exciting opportunity that could have the Curbside Composting Program up and running locally before year’s end,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert at a community meeting attended by more than 100 residents at the municipal building Monday night. “We are also looking at near-term options that could be ready as early as this summer, and we are working towards a goal of making this service free.”

Among the problems cited by Lempert last January in announcing the suspension of the program after seven years in operation were failures by Solterra, the solid waste contractor, to make timely required pickups, and periodic failures to take the food waste to a farm for composting, delivering it instead to a landfill.

Compounding the problem, when the town sought new bids for waste hauling and disposal, the only bidder was the company already being used and the bid was double the previous price.

In her January announcement, Lempert promised “to bring the program back stronger than ever. This is an important program and we are committed to taking the steps to make it successful. We ask our current participants to stay engaged with us while we develop the right solution for Princeton.”

The audience filling the meeting room Monday reflected Lempert’s commitment and determination to make the organic waste program work effectively. As one resident said, reporting on the three months since the suspension of the program, “We’ve more than doubled our
outflow to the landfill. We sorely need the compost program.”

Sustainable Princeton President Matt Wasserman and Municipal Infrastructure and Operations Director Bob Hough led the presentation and discussion, focusing on “what we’ve learned and what some of our options are.” Public officials plan to make a decision by June or July for both short-term and longer-term composting plans.

Hough noted that the town is evaluating doing the hauling itself with pickups likely in “zones,” similar to current trash pickup. The public works committee has reacted favorably to this idea with a potential site for composting within the municipal boundaries. The lead site for the composting operation currently is at the Department of Public Works River Road facility. “Looks like a win-win situation for the town,” Hough said.

Wasserman described some of the options for equipment, including a biodigester, currently owned by MetLife; a rocket composter, that at $650,000 seems too pricey; windrow composting, in collaboration with Double Brook Farm and Cherry Valley Cooperative; and the Bokashi method, which has been used by AgriArk in Hopewell and the Princeton University eating clubs. Lempert described MetLife’s biodigester as “potentially a game changer, but we still need to do some due diligence to ensure it’s the right solution for Princeton.”

Toters — large plastic containers — “a quick option” that would be placed around town with food waste going to local farms, may be the most efficient choice for the short term, Wasserman suggested. The audience was almost unanimous in agreeing that they would use these bins, and most signified that they would volunteer to oversee the process for two hours a week.

Wasserman and Hough went on to mention possible partners, including Sustainable Princeton, Princeton University, and Cherry Valley Cooperative, for advocating the program and educating residents about composting. 

Hough expressed optimism that, after initial costs, “We would like to see the program work so that ultimately it pays for itself.” 

Participation in the follow-up question-and-answer session was widespread, with all speakers sharing the public officials’ eagerness to see Princeton make its composting program work.

In her closing comments Lempert thanked everybody in the audience for their commitment, and she thanked Wasserman and Hough for leading the research of possibilities for moving forward. “We’re all invested in this,” she said. “In the United States we’re part of a community of many towns and cities trying to work this out. Other places are looking to us for answers.”

Princeton was the first town in the state to adopt a food waste program. Lawrenceville and Lambertville and others now have programs.

The municipality will present a food waste solutions panel for further discussion at Mountain Lakes House off Mountain Road from 10 to 11:30 a.m. this Saturday, May 4.