By Christopher Burns, staff writer
It’s no secret that Mainers produce a lot of food scraps, most of which end up either in a garbage incinerator or a landfill, where those scraps take up valuable space and become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
But the day is coming when that may no longer be the case.
Food scrap recovery efforts are increasingly popular in urban and suburban areas, and now they’re cropping up in rural towns from Piscataquis to Oxford counties, where Mainers for the most part have lacked access to programs that could divert those scraps for a higher purpose. To do so, town officials are teaming up with experienced organics recyclers in the private sector.
Organics recycling has become a focal point in the debate about the future of waste management in the state. With landfill space becoming an increasingly valuable commodity and a stagnating recycling rate, these efforts could help extend the lifespan of landfills while bringing the state closer to its 50 percent recycling goal, set in 1989. For these towns to succeed, it will require a behavioral shift not unlike what happened with recycling more than two decades ago.
“Hopefully after a generation of doing this around the state, it’s going to be second nature to folks to separate these items out of the trash,” said Greg Williams, director of waste solutions for Agri-Cycle Energy, which is vying for a slice of the rural organics market.
Not wasting anymore
Interest in recycling food scraps and other organics has grown in recent years. But the state largely lacks the infrastructure needed to translate this interest into action.
Just seven facilities are licensed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to collect food scraps from residential and commercial customers for compost, most of which are in southern and coastal Maine.
In Greater Portland, private haulers Garbage To Garden and We Compost It! compete for food scraps from households and businesses so they can turn them into what composters call “black gold.” Outside Greater Portland, however, Mainers without the acreage to compost themselves have limited opportunities to divert food scraps from the trash bin.
But that could be slowly starting to change.
Earlier this year, the town of Greenville in Piscataquis County launched a pilot program called Greenville Organics, in which residents can separate food scraps and other organics from their household trash and drop them off in bins at the local transfer station.
The town partnered with Agri-Cycle Energy, an organics collection company, to haul food scraps from the transfer station as well as local businesses, restaurants and other institutions to Exeter Agri-Energy in Exeter, which operates anaerobic digesters that convert organics into biogas to produce electricity.
Greenville isn’t the only rural town that’s exploring the options for diverting food scraps and organics from the trash. This summer, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments in Auburn awarded Agri-Cycle Energy a contract to potentially roll out organics recycling programs in several rural towns across Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.
Rumford, Mexico, Roxbury, Byron, Dixfield and Peru — which comprise the Northern Oxford Regional Solid Waste Board — as well as Greenwood and Woodstock are among the towns considering a partnership with Agri-Cycle Energy, according to Rebecca Secrest, an environmental planner at the council who is leading the effort to start organics recycling.
The prospect of diverting more food scraps from the trash bin is a promising development, but organics recycling can be logistically problematic unless enough residents participate, generating the tonnage needed to make it cost-effective for haulers to expand routes and for towns to see trash disposal costs drop.
“All these things take a little time to work out the kinks, build awareness and to get people on board,” Williams said.
For the towns of Norway and Paris in Oxford County, it didn’t take residents long to get on board with an organics recycling program.
Back in March, the Norway-Paris Solid Waste Board joined forces with We Compost It! to start an organics recycling program at the towns’ shared transfer station, where two 32-gallon green containers were set up for residents to drop off their scraps. Within the first month, they found that two containers weren’t enough. Now the towns fill between four and five containers a week, according to Warren Sessions, the manager of the shared transfer station.
Of course, the eventual goal of recycling organics isn’t just to keep food scraps from going to the waste-to-energy plant in Auburn, where they would otherwise go or to a landfill. It’s also about reducing the cost of trash disposal for the two towns.
Under the partnership, Norway and Paris pay $78 per month for We Compost It! to haul away the organics, no matter the tonnage, compared with $89 to haul and process a ton trash at Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. in Auburn, Sessions said. Since March, the towns have diverted an average of 2 tons of organics a month, giving them a slight reduction in trash disposal costs.
“We didn’t want to spend more money on composting than we spend to get rid of the trash. It only took us, I’d say, a month to get to the point where we’re saving money from composting,” Sessions said.
‘The next tin can’
This just scratches the surface of the amount of food scraps and organics that could be recovered from the waste stream. A 2011 University of Maine School of Economics analysis found that organics — food scraps, leaves and grass and some paper products — account for 43 percent of the trash generated in the state.
Of the 1.18 million tons of trash Mainers generated in 2014, an estimated 507,000 could have been composted, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. But only 23,627 tons of organics, or about 5 percent, were composted. Nationwide, the composting rate is about 9 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Given limited infrastructure, it isn’t a surprise that Maine has a low recovery rate for food scraps and organics. Discussions in towns such as Greenville and those in the Androscoggin Valley are small steps that together could represent early progress toward developing the state’s capacity to recycle organics.
State and federal policies could help programs to recycle organics get off the ground. Last September, the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture set a goal to reduce food waste in the U.S. by 50 percent by 2030 as part of the agencies’ efforts to advise the private sector on strategies to reduce waste and educate consumers.
At the state level, legislators earlier this year adopted a food recovery hierarchy that has prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to put more resources into advising towns on ways to divert greater amounts of food scraps from incinerators and landfills, according to Paula Clark, director of the Division of Materials Management at the DEP.
With food scrap recovery set as a priority for the state, it has spurred interest among towns looking at whether to offer residents organics recycling programs, according to Secrest, the environmental planner at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.
“It’s a shifting paradigm. Everyone is looking at food waste and realizing we’ve been disposing of a valuable resource for a long time with no real good reason,” Williams said. “We’d like to see the apple core become the next tin can.”