August 7, 2019

Council Votes in Favor Of Biodigester Donation to Restart Organics Program

By Anne Levin

Princeton Council approved a resolution at its Monday meeting to accept the donation of a biodigester from MetLife Stadium, in order to reactivate the town’s curbside organics program, which halted early this year.

While the biodigester is being given to the town, it will cost some $20,000 to move it and repair rust and dents. During the public comment portion of the meeting, several residents spoke in favor of the purchase, while others said more information is needed before a decision is made. But MetLife made it clear that a decision was needed right away if the donation was to take place, said Municipal Administrator Marc Dashield.

The vote, following statements from Council members as well as the public, was 4-1 in favor. Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, who acknowledged she was “raining on everyone’s parade,” cast the negative vote.

“It’s just so much more complicated than it seemed to me originally,” said Niedergang, who spent time at Princeton University’s biodigester, asking questions about its operation and maintenance. She was told that running the biodigester, which would be sited at a farm as yet unnamed, would require a full-time job. Niedergang said she had concerns about who would own the biodigester, runoff it might cause, and other potential issues.

A biodigester digests organic material biologically. The connection with MetLife was made by local architect Joshua Zinder, who spoke in favor of the project. “This is about changing lives for the future,” he said. “This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity, and I encourage Princeton to move forward.”

According to Dashield, there are three options for running the biodigester. It could be a public/private partnership, a private operation, or a public operation. In the latter, the municipality would haul the organic waste to a farm where the biodigester would be located, and do the processing. That option would cost about $316,000 a year, which is approximately $50,000 less than the cost of the program before it was discontinued due to problems with the private hauler.

Some 900 families were members of the former program, paying $65 a year to participate. Dashield said it would cost about $80 at first to join the new program, but the cost would be lowered over the next 10 years, to approximately $44. Princeton’s organic waste initiative was the first in New Jersey.

Some residents expressed concerns about what would happen if the biodigester program is unsuccessful. Dashield said that in that event, it could likely be sold. Councilman Dwane Williamson commented, “There is a lot of potential reward, but I don’t see much of a risk. Because if things don’t go well, we can recoup the cost.” Councilman David Cohen said, “We should buy it, but be ready to cut it off if it’s determined not viable.”

Resident Bainy Suri suggested the $20,000 it would cost the town could be better used in educating people about composting. “If you’re going to commit to the program, there should be a little more transparency,” she added [see today’s Mailbox for a letter from Suri]. Another resident commented in favor of the donation. “Princeton was the first town to have this kind of program. Why can’t we be the first to have a biodigester?” he asked. A third resident said, “We need to be leaders. I think this is the future, and I think we should do it.”

Another resident who was a patron of the former program suggested the town accept the biodigester, but hire a private company to do the hauling. Mayor Liz Lempert responded that the town has learned from experience that using a private hauler means the town has a lack of control over costs, and where the material is taken. Lempert said there is more than one local farm that is interested in hosting the biodigester.