August 24, 2019
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What it would take for Maine to compost its way to sustainability

It should come as no surprise that Mainers, like most Americans, throw away more food than anything else. But no widespread effort has taken hold in Maine to divert more food and organics from landfills and incinerators.

About 43 percent of what Mainers send to landfills and incinerators is compostable, according to a 2011 study by the University of Maine School of Economics. Two-thirds of that is food.

“Food scraps pose a major challenge for landfills because they take up a lot of space, they are very heavy and very wet,” said Mark King, an environmental specialist with the Sustainability Division of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Of the 1.18 million tons of waste Mainers generated in 2014, more than 450,000 could have been composted, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s latest waste generation report. But Mainers composted only 23,627 tons of organics. (These figures don’t capture the amount of organics composted in Mainers’ backyards.)

This figure was double the amount Mainers composted in 2013, but with landfill space becoming an increasingly precious commodity, the state and municipalities must grow the infrastructure needed to divert more waste away from landfills.

If enough organics, such as food scraps, could be diverted to composting facilities before reaching landfills, Maine could easily reach its 50 percent recycling goal, set in 1989, and extend its landfills’ lifespan.

“It’s the next big item in the waste stream,” said Kevin Roche, general manager of the waste-to-energy and recycling cooperative ecomaine. “If we’re ever going to meet our recycling goal, we need to tackle organics.”

The ‘ick’ factor

But the infrastructure needed to kickstart greater composting will need to be built almost from scratch. Only 14 facilities across the state are licensed by the Department of Environmental Protection to compost food scraps for use as soil additives.

Most of the existing compost infrastructure is located in southern and coastal Maine. For the most part, composting on a commercial scale has yet to take off north of the Portland area, although some towns such as Skowhegan are slowly building out programs.

One of the reasons for the slow adoption is what Roche calls the “ick factor.” It doesn’t take long for food scraps to start breaking down and give off odors and attract fruit flies, making storing that food for compost an unpleasant task.

“We have to find a way to resolve the ‘ick factor’ because if we really want to maximize the recovery of food waste, we need to make it easy for people and businesses,” Roche said.

Education, Roche said, would have to be part of a successful composting effort. The message would have to get out that freezing compostable waste, wrapping it with paper or layering it with yard debris can mitigate the ick.

But that’s not the only problem facing large-scale composting: the cost can make it unrealistic, according to a 2013 study ecomaine commissioned to determine whether it could offer an organics diversion program to the communities it serves in southern Maine. Ultimately, ecomaine decided it was not feasible.

The study estimated that of the 132,558 tons of residential and commercial waste hauled to ecomaine’s waste-to-energy plant in 2012, 3,100-21,000 tons of organics would be diverted depending on the participation rate.

In 2013, ecomaine’s tip fee for organic material was $30-$40 per ton, compared with $70.50 for solid waste sent to its waste-to-energy plant. While processing costs tend to be lower, hauling makes up a higher portion of the total costs of diverting organics, according to the ecomaine study.

Diversion programs often require new hauling routes in addition to existing trash and recycling routes as well as a shift in behavior in order to muster a high enough participation rate to keep a program’s cost down. But adding routes or putting more trucks on the ground isn’t a realistic option for ecomaine.

“Somehow we have to incorporate it in such a way that we won’t need more trucks,” Roche said.

ecomaine weighed two options aimed at adding the capacity to haul organics without raising costs.

One option was a pay-per-bag model in which residents buy special bags to store organics that are collected with the rest of the trash, then sorted at a processing facility. While transportation costs wouldn’t rise, processing costs could unless ecomaine collected enough compost to make the extra processing effort worth it.

A second model was switching to every-other-week trash collection with weekly organics collection. It would offer residents an incentive to compost and generate less trash, since it would be collected less frequently. But the switch would involve a major change in disposal habits that could present a hurdle.

To the north of ecomaine’s service area, the 187 towns that make up the Municipal Review Committee are weighing a new solution for dealing with their solid waste. But that option — a yet-to-be-built facility in Hampden — would use organics in the waste stream to produce biogas, so towns that sign on would have limited ability to divert organics from their municipal waste.

‘A steady solution’

While municipal composting has yet to take off, many residents and businesses across southern Maine have embraced composting by turning to the private sector.

Garbage to Garden collects food scraps and other organics every week from nearly 5,000 schools, businesses and households in seven Portland-area communities, charging $12.83 per month (they can get the service for free through its volunteer program). In Portland alone, about one in seven households composts food scraps with Garbage to Garden, according to founder Frank Tyler.

The Portland-based company last year diverted more than 2,200 tons of organics that would have otherwise gone to a landfill or incinerator, up from 121 tons in 2012, its first year.

“These figures are still only a fraction of the material that we can divert from the waste stream,” Tyler said. “As time goes on our participation rate will continue to grow, aided by the influence of more schools and workplaces adopting composting.”

Also for a monthly fee, Auburn-based We Compost It! collects compost every week from seven hospitals, 37 school cafeterias and about 100 restaurants from Lewiston-Auburn in the north to Wells in the south. In the last seven months, it has started offering curbside residential pickup in 10 communities in Cumberland and York counties.

It is even easing into municipal composting. Last year, Kennebunk gave We Compost It! a contract to offer its composting service to town residents. The town does outreach, and residents decide whether they want to pay for the service. In return, residents get a small discount (Kennebunk subscribers pay $8.26 per month, and Portland subscribers pay $8.99, for example).

“Kennebunk is the first town to take this step to get organics out of the waste stream,” We Compost It! General Manager Brett Richardson said. “I hope more towns take a proactive approach like this.”

About 200 households have signed up for the service since June 2015, Richardson said. He aims to grow participation to about 800 within the next year. Subscribers in Kennebunk divert about 1 ton of organics a week, he said.

Across its service area, Richardson estimates that We Compost It! subscribers diverted 4,000 tons of organics last year, up from 1,200 tons in 2012.

“It’s not a fast solution but a steady solution,” King, the environmental specialist, said. “As you get more and more people involved, you see big changes.”

 



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