Cambridge Takes Food-Scrap Diversion Seriously

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Food scrap accounts for at least 10 percent of all municipal solid waste generated in the state, or nearly 900,000 tons annually, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates.

In hopes of lessening the considerable amount of food scrap being needlessly wasted, state officials approved a solid waste disposal ban that, beginning next year, applies to businesses and institutions disposing of a ton or more of food weekly.

In the meantime, the DEP estimates that less than 5 percent of all food scrap generated in Massachusetts is being diverted to composting operations and backyard compost bins. And much of that valuable material likely originates in Cambridge.

Since the early 1990s, the city has been advocating and supporting backyard composting. In 2004, local officials and volunteers began teaching vermicomposting — composting with worms — to residents with limited outdoor space for a compost pile or bin.

Four years later, in 2008, the city began collecting food scrap at public schools and a few drop-off locations. Today, lunchroom composting is conducted at seven of the city’s 13 public schools and there are three drop-off locations — the Recycling Center on Hampshire Street, the Cambridge Community Center on Callender Street and at the Whole Foods Market in Central Square.

“A lot of residents didn’t want to wait around for us to start a curbside collection program,” said Randi Mail, the city’s recycling director. “The city was motivated to start these programs by climate protection, reducing our waste stream and to save money.”

The city currently pays $75 a ton for waste disposal. The three drop-off locations collect about 50 tons of food scrap annually, according to Mail.

Among the materials accepted at these locations are: vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, filters and tea bags, eggshells, grains and baked goods, meat, fish, bones and cheese wrapped in newspaper or paper bags, food-soiled napkins and paper towels, food-soiled biodegradable paper products, and wine corks.

The city’s Department of Public Works recommends that food scrap be collected in a paper bag, 5-gallon pail or another reusable container.

Among the items not accepted are liquids, grease, Chinese food takeout containers, plastic, Styrofoam, pet waste, diapers and yard waste.

Local residents also have the option of having their food scrap collected by Metro Pedal Power or Bootstrap Compost. The DPW also funds a residential food-scrap collection program at the Cambridge Community Center.

The city’s food-scrap diversion efforts, however, go beyond residential. In 2006, the city implemented a food-scrap collection program for businesses. Today, 70 businesses separate food scrap from their waste stream.

Save That Stuff, a Charlestown-based recycling hauler, and several other private haulers pick up the food waste and bring it to composting facilities in Massachusetts.

Statewide there are some 30 food and organic material composting operations, with a combined permitted capacity to accept nearly 150,000 tons annually. However, many of these facilities aren’t located near primary food scrap sources and some aren’t being fully utilized.

This April, the city also will begin a curbside pilot program. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) awarded the city a 2.5-year grant for up to $67,000 to research, plan and possibly implement a pilot curbside food-scrap collection program for residents.

The pilot program, Mail said, will help reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and will help achieve the city’s goals to reduce its waste stream by 30 percent by 2020. The initiative came in response to public demand, which was demonstrated by a March 2011 City Council resolution in support of curbside composting.

About 800 households — from single-family homes up to 12-unit buildings — in the Porter Square/North Cambridge area will participate in the yearlong pilot program. Participating households will receive a food-scrap container and a year’s supply of 3-gallon compostable bags to line the container. Once full, participants will place the bag in a sturdy plastic curbside bin with a locking lid.

The program will run one day a week for a year. City officials estimate the pilot will keep about 124 tons of food scrap out of Cambridge’s waste stream. The city has identified 10 possible compost facilities, and tip fees range from $40 to $80 per ton. Sites that could accept loads include Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus, Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton and WeCare Environmental in Marlborough.

If the pilot is successful, a voluntary citywide program would be phased in, according to Mail.