Monday, August 12, 2019

Princeton Council Decides To Acquire a Food Waste Bio-Digester

Princeton's council members voted 4-1 to acquire a used bio-digester from MetLife. Though the machine is being given to Princeton, the municipality will have to spend about $20-25,000 for transportation and repairs. Princeton will later decide whether to actually use the machine. It would cost an estimated $316,000 annually to collect and compost participating residents' foodwaste. During public comment, some citizens spoke in favor of the acquisition, but interestingly, three of Princeton's most devoted environmentalists questioned the wisdom of acquiring the machine, despite their support for composting in general. In addition, the one dissenting vote came from council's liaison to the Environmental Commission, Eve Niedergang.

Here are my notes from watching a video of the presentation, discussion and vote. (The topic essentially consumes the first hour and a half of the video). As far as I could tell, no examples of successful programs elsewhere in the country utilizing the Brome digester were offered. Though MetLife reportedly used the machine for three years, no details were given on its dependability and the quality of the product. Council members made clear that they were voting only to acquire the machine. The considerable expense of using it will be decided in future votes. Now would seem to be the time to also be closely considering alternative approaches that could prove to be lower tech and lower cost. No mention was made of a backup plan if the machine were to break.

  • A Brome 1624 model, worth $300,000 new, used for three years as a symbol of MetLife Stadium's sustainability efforts, then discontinued when new management took over. Has been sitting unused for 2 (?) years. An internet search yielded no results for the machine make and model, but exploring this site could prove instructive: Princeton University's digester is a different make.
  • MetLife needs to get the biodigester off of its property soon, and gave Princeton a deadline for deciding whether to accept the gift. 
  • The biodigester will be transported to a MetLife partner, Premier, which will do minor repairs, e.g. rust and dent removal, then the machine will be moved to an as yet unknown location in or around Princeton. In a report by town manager, Marc Dashield, council was told that the cost for transportation, repairs and assembly would not exceed $25,000. The town would then need to decide whether to use the machine or try to sell it. 
  • The machine's capacity can be checked in the video (16 cubic yards?, per month?, expandable to 24 cubic yards with an extension?)
  • A big problem with Princeton previous foodwaste collection program was that the foodwaste had to be hauled long distances for composting, at sites in Delaware or Pennsylvania. The aim with the biodigester is to locate it either in Princeton or on a nearby farm. The River Road facility is one option.
  • Matt Wasserman, former Princeton Environmental Commission chair and longtime president of Sustainable Princeton, would be the project manager.
  • Different options for private or public operation were offered, with estimates of costs. Though the most expensive option would be for the municipality to haul and process the foodwaste, the town has found private operations to be undependable.
  • The total cost per year is estimated to be $316,000 ($14,000 debt service on a $110,000 vehicle, $5000 for fuel and maintenance, $162,000 for two employees, $35,000 for education, $100,000 for processing)
  • $69,000 could potentially be saved in reduced landfill costs
  • Cost would work out to $165 per household per year, with half of that being paid by taxpayers, half by the participant
  • It was repeatedly stated that the vote to acquire the machine would only cost $20-25,000, some of which could be recouped by selling the machine, if council later decided not to move forward with using it. It was explained that MetLife preferred to take a tax writeoff by donating the machine, rather than try to sell it. If nothing else, it could be sold as scrap.
  • local farmers buy compost currently for $50-100 per cubic yard from Vermont Compost
  • Dwaine Williamson views the decision in terms of risk and potential reward, and doesn't see much downside.
  • Tim Quinn trusts our professionals to mitigate any potential risk
  • Eve Niedergang said that the more she dug into the details, the more concerned she became. Running the Princeton University digester is a full-time job. It requires a structure, which must be heated in winter, plumbing, etc. Another structure would be needed to house the compost while it cures for 4 weeks. Would runoff be an issue? She is concerned about the municipal staff and council time being devoted to the project with no guarantee of success. She sees many unknowns, and has found the project to be much more complicated than she expected. A digester is not the most ecological way to deal with foodwaste. She sees the potential for a cascade of expenses for an approach that ultimately may not work.
  • Dwaine responded by emphasizing the urgency of the decision, given MetLife's deadline. He assumes we can sell the machine, and sees the vote as very narrowly defined as acquisition only, not actual use.
  • Mayor Liz Lempert said that NJ Dept. of Env. Protection has committed to a 50% reduction in food waste being landfilled in the state, with no plan on how to reach that goal. She said that Princeton U's use of a digester suggests that they decided it's a good idea. She believes the Brome digester doesn't need to be indoors, and thanked Josh Zinder, the local architect who made Princeton aware of the MetLife digester's availability. She pointed to lessons learned in the past, particularly that we need to be in control of the process.
  • Eve pointed out that the numbers presented at the meeting were not available to council members until that afternoon, leaving no time to look at them. She asked why the town is projecting 2000 participants in year 4 when Princeton was only able to find 900 participants for the previous version of the program.
  • Liz defended the need for a curbside collection program by pointing to the strong interest shown (council chambers was filled twice during previous meetings to discuss the subject), and said that surveys show that many residents are not willing to compost in their backyards.
  • Though David Cohen voted to acquire the digester, he said Princeton needs to be ready to cut the program off if it proves unfeasible. We "can't be led down the primrose path." He also mentioned distributed collection centers as potentially useful, regardless, for people who live in apartment buildings and can't participate in curbside collections.
  • Councilmember Fraga said she tends to be an optimist, and so is supporting the acquisition.
  • Bainy Suri: We're not setting the right example. She mentioned Bergen County was making backyard composters available to residents at low cost. It doesn't make sense to replace a pilot program with another pilot program. This program is not scalable, given the limited capacity of the machine.
  • Another longtime environmental advocate in town agreed with councilmember Niedergang's concerns, and said that the information being used to make the decision was not available to the public prior to the meeting. There has not been enough research done. We need to be more sophisticated, and focus more on education and reducing the generation of foodwaste. Are there any examples of a digester working elsewhere?
  • Another local environmentalist said that councilmember Niedergang made good points, called for public/private partnerships and education.
  • Another longtime local environmentalist recommended "centralized composting in open rows," as opposed to the containerized digester. She pointed to stubbornly low participation rates in the previous foodwaste collection program, resistance of residents to being charged extra for composting and less for not, the inconvenience of multiple pickup days between trash and compost. She said that a digester rated low in comparison to other potential actions that could be taken to reduce the amount of foodwaste being landfilled.
  • Joshua Zinder was enthusiastic about his previous experience with curbside foodwaste collection, which he said had reduced his trash by 50%, and sees foodwaste collection as the start of something bigger. "We should be a leader."
  • One resident supportive of the acquisition said that his backyard composter had quickly filled up. (The compost process greatly reduces the mass of material, so it's not clear how his composter could have filled up unless it was undersized and wintertime, when decomposition is slowed.)
  • There was about a 50:50 mix of positive and negative comments by the public.
Related posts on this website can be found by typing "compost" into the search box, or going to this link:

Designs for a homemade leaf corral and critter-proof foodwaste composter can be found at this link.

Town Topics reported on the meeting at this link.

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