2017-01-19 / News

Biddeford pursues city-wide compost program

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The city’s Solid Waste Management Commission is in the later stages of issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for curbside food waste collection and compost for residents.

The commission has drafted an RFP document, and, according to commission Chairman Martin Grohman – also state representative for District 12 in Biddeford – it will go through a legal review before the commission issues it. Grohman said that the commission has authorization to continue the process, but the council has the ultimate authority on whether to accept a proposal.

According to the draft RFP,the commission first recommended a composting collection service in October 2016. The RFP seeks a business “to perform the curbside collection of residential kitchen food wastes and to transport said collected kitchen food wastes to a licensed facility to be composted.”

“The idea is that we would enter into an agreement via an RFP with a vendor, obviously to be determined, that would do city-wide service,” Grohman told the Courier. “The vendor today is quite selective about where they’ll go.”

Currently one food waste pickup service, We Compost It!, operates privately in Biddeford. Grohman said, however, that its service is limited to small routes that includes mainly restaurants.

“The dynamic is that, a lot of the restaurants take advantage of composting services,” Grohman said. “It sends the right message to their customers and, frankly, it also saves them money, since they pay for their own disposal.”

Katie Pinard, co-owner of Elements on Main Street, said it has been using We Compost It! Since September 2015.

“We were one of the first commercial accounts that they took on in Biddeford,” she said. “We go through a ton of coffee grounds and other things, like food scraps, that are really valuable for composting, but we didn’t have a way to do it, so all of that went to yard waste. Since we signed on with We Compost It!, we’ve drastically reduced the weight of garbage that we’re sending in our trash dumpster.”

Pinard said before the service was offered, Elements wanted to compost but had no way to do it. It had tried to send their food waste local farmers.

“The farmers that we spoke with, they weren’t able to take our coffee grounds because it’s so acidic,” she said.

According to Grohman, most compost services create compost by taking in a variety of different waste materials from a large region. We Compost It! has their compost facility in Auburn. Grohman couldn’t speak for We Compost It! specifically, but he said that with most composting services, the material is placed in a fenced-in yard area, called a “wind row,” with hundreds of other tons of material, and breaks down over the course of about three months while workers turn the waste over to expose it to the air.

For commercial clients in Biddeford, the service costs between $30 and $40 per month, Pinard said. She said Elements does not directly see savings from the reduction in weight to the trash dumpster because it doesn’t own the trash dumpster. Instead, the dumpster is owned by the restaurant’s landlord and is included in rent.

Regardless of the lack of direct financial benefits, Pinard said the service is worthwhile.

“It’s almost silly not to,” she said. “There’s no reason not to, other than the financial component, which is absolutely reasonable. It’s good for the environment. It’s a social good for our business – our staff members are excited about it, they feel good about it.”

The RFP in the works by the Solid Waste Management Commission would expand the service to be available to all residences in the city. Grohman said in exchange for being the “selected vendor,” the service would be required to be available to go to all residential stops in the city. According to the draft RFP, there are 4,800 such stops.

“This would be an entirely optional service that residents could take advantage of, at their own expense,” he added. “The city would not be covering this.”

Grohman said the commission is modeling the proposed service on the one that Kennebunk offers. According to Kennebunk Assistant Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, the service works essentially as a partnership. Tibbetts is outgoing manager.

“We looked for an independent vendor to come in and deliver the service, and that was the vendor that we would support on our website,” Tibbetts said. “You pay $8.26 per month. They empty your bucket, they clean it. If you want, you leave them a note and they’ll drop you five pounds of compost.”

Kennebunk uses We Compost It! for its town-wide service. Tibbetts said it had the service in place for about 18 months.

“It’s just like a separate business, really,” he said. “If another company wanted to come in, I don’t think, under the commercial laws, we could prohibit them.”

Tibbetts said there is another service in the area, called Garbage to Garden, that also submitted a proposal to Kennebunk.

The partnership works mainly as a shared interest, rather than as a regulation, as Tibbetts describes it. While We Compost It! gets more business from being promoted by the city, the city saves money by reducing the weight of solid waste, which it has to pay to dispose of.

“If you were to go to the (Environmental Protection Agency) website, they’ll tell you that easily anywhere from 25 to 45 percent of your waste is compostable,” Tibbetts said. “Clearly, getting that out of the waste stream is a good thing. We have a pay-asyou throw program, so if I’m compositing, that means I don’t have as much weight going in my bag, so I can put more stuff in my bag. The cost of the bag pays for the burning of the trash. Getting that excess weight out of there actually saves the municipality a little bit of money.”

He was reluctant to give precise numbers for savings without doing research, but Tibbetts gave some basic numbers. He estimated that, in Kennebunk, 300 people use the service.

“The average home disposes of 300 pounds of trash a month, and you can reduce that from 25 to 45 percent, you’re talking 100 pounds less,” he said. “A hundred pounds multiplied by, let’s say, 300 customers, that’s 30,000 pounds. That’s 15 tons a month.”

Tibbetts added that for Kennebunk, a ton of solid waste costs about $70 to dispose of. Grohman said Biddeford pays $56 per ton.

Grohman said an advantage of Kennebunk’s model is that it allows the city to have some sway in regulating the service, as distinct from in towns with different models, such as Portland. That sway allows the city to address potential problems like, Grohman said for example, with pickup times or issues with sanitation of the curb-side buckets used in the service.

The terms of Biddeford’s draft RFP would require the trucks used by a service to be covered and to be approved by the director of public works. It would also require information reporting from the service, and for the service to be insured. The city, according to the RFP draft, would commit up to $3,000 annually for advertising and promotion efforts.

Pat Fox, Saco’s public works director, said that Saco has explored a similar city-wide service, but that it’s not yet feasible. He said that We Compost It! previously operated in the city privately, but did not get enough participation and has now discontinued.

“This is widely considered the next area of recycling for municipalities to explore cost savings and environmental benefits,” Fox said. “The problem right now is that the cost of collection outweighs the cost savings of food waste disposal unless you can get full buy-in and participation from every household in the community. You need to remove considerable weight from the trash you dispose of to cover the costs of picking up an additional waste stream with equipment and labor costs.

“Environmentally, it is a worthwhile initiative to keep exploring, however the financial hurdles still need to be overcome.”

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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