December 19, 2011 | General

Residential Food Waste Collection Rolls Out

BioCycle December 2011, Vol. 52, No. 12, p. 28
Starting in spring of 2012, Hamilton and Wenham, Massachusetts will provide residential food waste collection service to all households.
Tracy Frisch

This fall, the Boards of Selectmen of the sister towns of Hamilton and Wenham, on Massachusetts’ North Shore, both voted to institute community-wide food waste collection. Curbside programs serving all households in the bedroom communities are slated to get underway next spring, following several years of intense preparation and two phases of a successful pilot program.
Only a decade ago, residents in Hamilton and Wenham (population 7,800 and 4,900, respectively) took weekly collection of unlimited quantities of household waste for granted as a free town service. Aggregated solid waste costs were covered in the property tax levy. While the towns provided free recycling bins, people had no incentive to use them or reduce waste.
In 2004, the Hamilton-Wenham chapter of the League of Women Voters did a study showing the local benefits of Pay As You Throw (PAYT). The town boards appointed a joint recycling committee, which recommended a “household waste reduction program.” This modified PAYT system allowed households to put out one 30-gallon “barrel” of trash per week at no cost. If they had more waste, residents could purchase special town trash bags for $1.75.
Both town boards sent this proposal to their annual town meetings. Despite some vocal opposition, the plan passed. In the first year, the town of Hamilton gained $110,000 in cost savings and income from trash bag sales. Hamilton’s residential recycling rate increased from 24 to 34 percent, while Wenham’s rate rose from 27 to 34 percent. No illegal dumping of any significance occurred. Members of the environmental group, Hamilton-Wenham Green, were prominent advocates. “They came to town board meetings and helped set a tone,” says Gretel Clark, the League leader who later became chair of the recycling committee.

While adopting PAYT reduced the quantity of trash set out, Clark wanted to go further in reducing solid waste. She focused in on curbside collection of food waste. Both a composter and a hauler were available to service that type of program – Peter Britton of Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton and Roy Ferreira of New England Solid Waste. Britton produces compost from commercial food waste and municipal leaves and sells 10,000 cubic yards a year. Ferreira has trucked food waste from supermarkets, universities and other institutions using custom truck bodies supplied by Martel Welding & Sons, Inc. to Brick Ends for six years.
The recycling committee organized a preliminary curbside food waste pilot program serving 74 Hamilton-Wenham households at no cost. It ran for two months (February and March 2009). In the green bin, all types of food waste and soiled paper (e.g., napkins, paper towels) were allowed. Next to it, residents could put out a paper bag of yard trimmings. Ferreira contributed free hauling and Britton waived the $40/ton food waste tipping fee to get the initiative going. Participants, all volunteers, received 13-gallon green bins from a sample pallet sent by Norseman Plastics.
The recycling committee had first set up a hotline when the two towns implemented the modified PAYT program and it continued to provide this service to support participants in the curbside food waste pilots. Residents could leave messages asking for assistance or simply vent or make suggestions. Clark responded to the calls daily. The committee also offered to do home visits for residents.
At the recycling committee’s request, the hauler’s employees counted participating households weekly with a clicker. Once a month, the truck was weighed, showing that the 74 households diverted a third to half of their total solid waste into the green bins. The follow up survey, with a 75 percent response rate, found the vast majority didn’t want the program to end and that 92 percent were willing to pay at least $50 and as much as $120 annually for continued service.
An expanded pilot program came next, comprised of over 500 families. It ran for a 12-month period starting in April 2010. Though it would cost money, the town was not yet ready to contribute funding. The volunteers running the program had to make the numbers work; 500 households paying $75 for service for a year would cover the hauler’s charge. Sign-up took place at community events over almost six months.
The committee had counted on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to fund 500 green bins and tabletop collectors (at $29/household or almost $15,000), but the source of this funding didn’t materialize. Rather than reneging on its promise of free green bins, the committee solicited donations. In the end, MassDEP found a pot of unspent money from an EPA grant for organics diversion and contributed $7,000 to close the gap for the purchase of the green bins.
Another setback occurred when only 350 of the 500 households showed up on green bin distribution day and paid their $75 fee. The recycling committee persuaded the town of Hamilton, under an intermunicipal agreement with Wenham, to sign the contract for 12 months of weekly curbside organics pickup, even though funds had been raised for six months of service. The committee committed to continuing recruitment. The town paid for the service out of an enterprise fund. Eventually 631 households signed up.
Statistics for the 600-household pilot program were equally impressive. Participants diverted an average of 15 lbs/week of food waste/organics. In contrast, Hamilton-Wenham households overall put out an average of 27 pounds of unsorted trash a week. Of the majority of participants responding to a survey, half indicated that they never put out more than half a 30-gallon can of trash a week.

Michael Lombardo became Hamilton’s first town manager in April 2010. (Hamilton previously had a town administrator form of government.) Clark assisted Lombardo in learning about food waste collection and composting. He studied experiences of other municipalities with curbside food waste collection and focused on making the finances work. “I looked at the handwriting on the wall, at the savings potential and ecological benefits,” he says. “The question is how to create a sustainable program that we can afford and will endure future budgets.” John Tomasz, Hamilton’s public works director, has been more focused on avoiding complaints and pushback. For residents to accept the program, he said they must be educated, with problems addressed proactively when they occur.
With completion of the second pilot in April 2011, Hamilton and Wenham kept it going, assuming the costs until they could establish their town-wide programs. This expense put pressure on the towns to make decisions. New England Solid Waste was asking $146,000 for the town-wide food waste collection contract, making the economics a stumbling block for Hamilton. But Hiltz Disposal, which has provided trash and recycling pickup for Hamilton, Wenham and most of the nine other North Shore towns since the 1980s, made a surprising proposal of $16,000 a year. The town said yes. (The town itself pays the tipping fees.)
According to Hiltz operations manager John Tognazzi, the company will realize significant savings by combining recyclables and organics into a single run. He has ordered a specialized designed dual stream rear load packer from Heil. Automation of trash collection and greatly reduced trash volume will also reduce Hiltz’s costs. The Hamilton-Wenham organics will be delivered directly to Brick Ends Farm.
Tognazzi sees value in entering this new market early in order to avoid being closed out later. The company has been an early adopter before, jumping into recycling before most other area firms. “You don’t want to go to a municipality and say you don’t want to do it,” he says. Hiltz is looking at getting a permit to accept food waste at its recycling center, which already accepts yard trimmings, in order to start collecting food waste from commercial accounts. And with dual stream packers, Hiltz will be poised to offer this service throughout the North Shore.

The recycling committee has always taken on the task of outreach to residents. Members publicized committee initiatives with flyers, personal contacts, media releases and at events. Local press has been frequent and favorable. A volunteer manages a mass email list to facilitate timely communication with participants. For example, when the pilot program had a hot weather snafu with fly infestations, the recycling committee emailed all participants with its solution of freezing all food waste that was cooked or contained meat between weekly pick ups.
Acknowledging its importance for next year’s town-wide rollout, the town manager has asked the recycling committee to ramp up its educational campaign. There will be public meetings, educational materials and maybe a banner hanging over the town line. In October 2011, in assuming full responsibility for the program, the Public Works Department took over the hotline.
After it became known that the town intended to take the curbside food waste program town-wide and possibly further restrict trash disposal, some residents reacted with outrage. Rather than ignoring them or buckling to hostility, town officials held a special open meeting, where they were able to assuage most opponents’ concerns. They explained that solid waste was one of the very few budget items for which the town could cut costs and patiently presented spreadsheets that showed the financial implications for the town. The Hamilton Board of Selectmen determined that they had the authority to decide on this measure without taking it to the annual town meeting (which is for approving budgetary expenditures, not setting policy).
As a new source of revenue, Hamilton is considering the feasibility of citing an anaerobic digester on the town’s capped landfill. “It would be a great way to capture the organics from the North Shore,” says Lombardo. “We have a lot at stake here.”

Tracy Frisch ( is a freelance journalist and community educator with a strong interest in Zero Waste and other aspects of sustainability. She served as the founding executive director of the Regional Farm & Food Project (1996-2004) and the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (1989-1995).

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