South Portland and Scarborough are getting ready to launch Maine’s first municipal food waste collection programs.

The two pilot programs will offer free, weekly curbside pickup of food scraps such as bread, coffee grounds, dairy products and meat in select neighborhoods. Based on the results, the programs could expand in both cities, potentially providing a model for other southern Maine communities.

The goal of both pilot projects is to reduce the amount of waste sent to an incinerator or landfill. Other American cities – including San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado – have implemented successful food waste programs. As of 2014, nearly 200 U.S. cities had some form of food waste collection.

“This is where national leaders in waste management are trending,” said Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability coordinator.

Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability coordinator, says food waste collection is the next major trend in waste management. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Food waste makes up almost 28 percent of household trash in Maine, according to a 2011 University of Maine study. In 2015, Maine towns and cities generated 1.19 million tons of solid waste. Of that, 39,659 tons, including food waste and lawn trimmings, was composted, about 3 percent of the total, according to a report in January from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Efforts to remove food and other organic waste from the state’s waste stream have grown in recent years. Towns and cities have arranged places where residents can drop off kitchen scraps, or have partnered with private companies to offer residents fixed prices for compost pickup. Organic collection companies such as Garbage-to-Garden and We Compost It! offer fee-based collection to homes and have expanded business in southern Maine in recent years.

But the South Portland and Scarborough programs go a step further by integrating food waste into regular collection of trash and recycling.

ECOMAINE STARTS TAKING FOOD WASTE

In September of last year, ecomaine, the Portland waste processing company collectively owned by more than a dozen towns and cities, began accepting food and organic waste in exchange for reduced tipping fees. The food waste is shipped to Exeter Agri-Energy, an anaerobic digester that converts organic waste and cow manure into electricity, compost and animal bedding.

“We were basically waiting for ecomaine to take food. The minute they did that we started setting up the pilot,” Rosenbach said.

Sending food to a waste-to-energy incinerator is inefficient – Rosenbach likens it to trying to fuel a campfire with oatmeal – and some food waste does not break down in landfills. Delivering it to a digester like the one in Exeter, in Penobscot County, is the highest use for the material, she said.

South Portland is testing the one-year project on about 600 households in the Knightville and Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods. Beginning in May, every household will get a white, 6-gallon lidded bucket for disposal of food waste. Those buckets will be collected every week on the same day as trash and recycling. Residents can first put food scraps into a clear plastic bag, then that is inserted into the bucket.

Garbage-to-Garden was the winner of the three companies that bid for the new service. The company will be paid $43,700, including the cost of the bins and outreach and education services. South Portland will also have large compost bins available at its transfer station for any resident to use.

Even though tipping fees at ecomaine are slightly less for food waste than for trash – $55 a ton versus $70.50 a ton – the pilot project isn’t expected to save money, said Rosenbach. However, diverting food from the waste stream could get South Portland closer to its goal of 40 percent recycling by 2020, after hovering around 28 percent for the past seven years, she said.

“This is the largest chunk of our waste stream we can target,” Rosenbach said.

Neighboring Scarborough is trying out a nine-month pilot project for about 180 homes in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood. Residents will be given green, 35-gallon bins that will be collected every week along with either trash or recycling, said sustainability coordinator Kerry Strout. Pine Tree Waste, the company that provides collection services for the city, uses dual-body trucks and can only pick up two types of material at a time, Strout said.

Food waste collection will not add to the town’s solid waste budget, she said. Scarborough will also provide composting bins at its transfer stations for residents who are not part of the pilot program.

DATA COLLECTION, BEST PRACTICES

Travis Wagner, an environmental policy professor at the University of Southern Maine, intends to work with South Portland, Scarborough and ecomaine to analyze the data produced by the two programs. He also intends to measure how the drop-off composting bins are used at the Falmouth, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth transfer stations. The goal is to come up with best practices for municipal programs based on participation and cost, Wagner said.

“By looking at these different approaches, maybe other towns can glean off this and learn what works and doesn’t work,” he said.

Even though collection and disposal of food waste is in its infancy, it is likely the direction in which municipalities and private companies are headed, said Scarborough Public Works Director Mike Shaw.

“This is similar to where recycling was 10 or 15 years ago,” Shaw said.

“You’ve got to look to the future here,” he said. “The model we have for getting rid of food waste will change.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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