Maine companies are bringing in food waste from out of state as the market for household and commercial composting slows here.

Mainers produced 632 tons of food waste a day last year – almost a pound of apple cores, rotten vegetables, spoiled yogurt and meat trimmings a day for every person in the state.

Three quarters of Maine’s food waste goes to landfills or incinerators. Less than a quarter is diverted to compost, and only 5 percent is captured as edible food distributed to the hungry, according to a 2018 legislative report.

There is a push to shift that waste to compost farms and biomass boilers, to improve recycling rates and reduce the trash Mainers have going into landfills. But early growth for private companies specializing in food waste disposal has stalled, as firms compete for a shrinking pool of garbage in southern Maine. Companies have already snapped up commercial and residential clients on profitable collection routes.

To keep growing, some companies are bringing waste in from new out-of-state customers.

“They probably have mostly all saturated the bigger customers on the Interstate 95 corridor from Kennebunk to Augusta,” said Travis Blackmer, a University of Maine economist who researches the solid waste industry.

That helps explain why fewer than 10 food waste collection companies operate in the state, and why no companies serve huge parts of Maine, including Lewiston and Bangor, the state’s second and third biggest cities, he theorizes. Without municipally funded programs to collect residential food waste, the market will likely stay small and concentrated in southern Maine, Blackmer said.

“Municipal curbside collection is the growth model for composting,” he said. “We might be two years away from that, five years away – it may never come.”

Brent Lemieux of Garbage to Garden pulls a clean compost container from the back of a truck Nov. 28 while picking up food waste on Portland’s West End. Garbage to Garden just passed the 10,000-subscriber mark.

We Compost It!, based in Auburn, collects household food waste only from three communities – Kennebunk, Brunswick and Portland – half of what it did when it started five years ago.

The company withdrew to focus on commercial and institutional clients, General Manager Tyler Gleason said.

“We were trying to be everything to everyone in all towns. It wasn’t a responsible business model,” he said. “Driving across an entire town to pick up a few buckets to try to keep the price low wasn’t working for us – not just financially, but having to keep a good work-life balance.”

Now, getting new commercial customers can be a challenge. Those with ethical or environmental reasons to compost signed up early, and others need to be convinced that his company’s service is cheaper than paying a conventional trash hauler.

“We are banging on doors every day to get more customers,” Gleason said.

SEEKING OUT-OF-STATE CLIENTS

Dan Bell thinks his company, Agri-Cycle Energy, would be in the same position without an expanding client base in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Unlike Maine, those two states have laws that require large-scale producers like restaurants, colleges and hospitals to divert organic waste from incinerators and landfills.

“We have seen higher growth in those regions due to legislation,” Bell said.

Agri-Cycle is the collection wing of Exeter Agri-Energy, a composting facility that operates an anaerobic digestion power plant in Exeter fueled by food waste and cow manure. The company generates 3 megawatts of energy, enough to power 2,500 homes, triple what it did when it opened in 2012. It now has 25 employees and revenues are growing by 1.5 times a year, Bell said.

Although growth is slower in Maine, the trend will be toward more composting, not less, as big disposal companies like Casella and Waste Management get into the industry, Bell estimates.

“It is a really interesting space to be a part of right now,” Bell said. “We feel good about the momentum.”

Brent Lemieux, field operations manager for Garbage to Garden, carries a full compost container to dump into his truck during a Wednesday pickup route through Portland’s West End.

In 2017, roughly a third of the 78,800 tons of organic waste processed in Maine came from out of state, according to estimates from a 2018 report for the Maine Legislature.

Portland-based Garbage to Garden gets about 150 new accounts every month and just passed the 10,000-subscriber mark. The company collects household food waste and returns compost to customers for a $15 monthly subscription.

It picks up from nine towns and cities in Cumberland County, but growth is strongest in Arlington, Belmont and Somerville, Massachusetts, compact residential communities just outside Boston.

“None of the people in Somerville have space to compost,” said Phoebe Lyttle, community outreach director. “I think people in urban areas are really keen in thinking about how to live a more sustainable life – I think it is naturally a larger market for us.”

By June, the end of the 2019 fiscal year, regional solid waste company ecomaine expects to have diverted 6,000 tons of food waste at its Portland recycling and incinerating plant. That’s about double the weight ecomaine collected when it opened a platform to collect and transport Portland-area organics to Exeter Agri-Energy.

REGIONAL COLLECTION SYSTEM

In a February report, ecomaine estimated that a regional collection system could shift as much as 13,900 tons of municipal food waste into composting, on top of 5,100 to 7,100 tons of institutional, commercial and industrial organics, roughly 12 percent of the 175,000 tons the facility takes in every year.

It is uncertain when, or if, a regional collection system like that will be a reality. Scarborough and South Portland last year tried out residential food waste pickup, but neither adopted a permanent program. Scarborough still has public bins where residents can drop household waste, and South Portland offered residents a free 12-gallon waste bin and a discounted, $9-a-month Garbage to Garden subscription.

“At this point, it did not make sense financially to just jump into curbside collection citywide,” sustainability coordinator Julie Rosenbach said.

The opt-in program has been popular, but the city still has a little less than half of its original order of bins to give away.

Considering that every town has its own system to collect and dispose of trash and recycling, enacting a broad food waste diversion program in the near future is unlikely, Rosenbach said.

“On a regional or a state scale, you’d have to bring people up to the same level,” she said. “I’m not sure what that would take.”

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

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