Officials and residents discuss organic food waste recycling

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Determined to restore the organic food waste recycling program, Princeton officials held a special meeting on Feb. 7 to brainstorm ideas and to get feedback from residents, some of whom are program participants.

The Princeton Council meeting room was filled as nearly 150 residents turned out to learn why the program has been temporarily suspended. They also offered suggestions that ranged from investigating how to lower the cost to participate, to educating participants as to what items can be recycled, and whether a local solution can be found.

The move to suspend the program grew out of a combination of a doubling of the current price for the service and the hauler’s failure to pick up organic food waste. Contamination was also an issue because participants would toss garbage and plastic bags in it, which meant taking it to a landfill or an incinerator instead of a processing facility.

Solterra Recycling Solutions Inc. was the sole bidder for a two-year contract to collect the organic food waste. Its bid to collect the organic food waste totaled $829,200 for 2019 and 2020, and would have meant an increase in the cost to program participants.

Solterra, which held the contract that expired last month, also had trouble finding a stable home for the organic food waste that was collected, Robert Hough, Princeton’s director of Infrastructure and Operations, told the attendees.

The hauler would take the organic food waste to several Pennsylvania farms to be composted, but sometimes the farm was full and at other times the load was rejected because of contaminants, Hough said. Passers-by would see the green recycling bucket and drop trash it in, he said.

The decision to suspend the program for three months was made to allow the town to look at its options, such as handling it in-house and finding a farm that would accept the organic food waste, Hough said. In the meantime, Princeton officials will try to figure out the best way to reinvent the program, he said.

Jairo Gonzalez, president of the nonprofit New Jersey Composting Council, told the attendees that New Jersey is a “backwards state in this area. People say (organic food waste) stinks and there are bugs in it. (But) you guys are pioneers. You must educate people. It’s the culture.”

New Jersey has few facilities that can accommodate organic food waste to be composted because setting up one is expensive, Gonzalez said. While many facilities are able to screen out contaminants, “you will never achieve it 100 percent,” he said.

In the meantime, the New Jersey Composting Council is working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the State Legislature to create legislation that addresses the need for organic food waste composting, Gonzalez said.

After the presentations, attendees broke out into discussion groups to brainstorm some solutions to the problem.

Several suggestions emerged from the break-out groups – from better education about what can be placed in the organic food waste recycling bucket and how to avoid contamination, to teaching about it in school so the children can encourage their families to participate.

Incentives to join the program were suggested, such as tax credits or creating drop-off sites in the neighborhoods.

On the financial side, one suggestion was to allow businesses to advertise on the side of the green recycling buckets. Another suggestion was to combine municipal and commercial organic food waste collection to lower costs. Less frequent collection during cold weather was another suggestion.

Wrapping up the meeting, Hough told the attendees to hold onto their green organic food waste recycling containers – which do not belong to Solterra Recycling Solutions – because “we 100 percent expect to be back” in the organic food waste recycling program.