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November 1, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Garbage goes green

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Portland-based Garbage to Garden has the pickup contract for South Portland’s 600-home pilot program. Since it was founded in 2012, the curbside compost service has steadily grown. It now serves more than 5,000 households, schools, restaurants, businesses and events throughout Maine and Massachusetts.

The eco-focus that's helped spur the local food movement is also galvanizing the other end of the food chain: food waste disposal.

Two municipal pilot programs this year are being watched to see if Maine residents will commit to regular composting. But those who handle the waste say they already know the answer.

"People are absolutely willing," said Phoebe Lyttle, community outreach director of Garbage to Garden, which picks up 20 tons of food scraps a day from southern Maine drop-off sites and residential subscribers.

The company has the pickup contract for South Portland's 600-home pilot program, which began in May. The city's goal is to recycle 40% of its garbage by 2020 and the year-long program's purpose is to gauge the interest.

South Portland Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach couldn't be reached for this article, but she told The Forecaster last month, "People are really excited about it. We haven't had a negative response at all."

Rosenbach said she'll have figures for the City Council in the near future.

Her comment came after Scarborough ended a similar pilot program early. The town is putting together its data, and the biggest complaint seems to be about the pickup schedule, which was on alternating weeks from the garbage and recycling pickup.

Lyttle stressed that Scarborough's drop-off program will continue and that residents of that town and the others served by Garbage to Garden are willing to drop off their food waste. The company collects several hundred pounds of waste from the town a week.

While the two pilot programs are the only municipal pickup programs in the state, Lyttle predicts there will be more.

Public acceptance?

While some municipalities aren't yet ready to put a program together, the public seems ready to take the plunge.

"We have people emailing us asking about it," she said. "People are looking to compost."

Lyttle said that while the program is accessible to anyone who wants to take part, there's always been the idea that it can be done on the municipal level, particularly at a time when many communities are trying to find ways to cut down on how much they spend on garbage disposal.

She said South Portland was more than ready.

"South Portland is a really eco-minded community," she said. Residents who weren't part of the pilot program because they lived outside of the test area in the Knightville and Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods, called the company, asking to be added.

Many of those people signed on to the company's residential service, which picks up waste at curbside, taking the full compost bucket and leaving a clean empty one, from 8,000 homes and 250 businesses in southern Maine. It's $14 a month, but the service is free for those who volunteer with the company — two hours of work for a free month.

The company also works with North Yarmouth, Harpswell and Bath, including Scarborough, picking up from seven dropoff locations.

That's a good temporary solution. Dropoff has fewer kinks to work out than curbside pickup.

The benefit for towns, obviously, is that the less garbage they have hauled away, the less they pay.

It's all taken to Benson's Farm in Gorham, where it's turned into compost.

The company has been going gangbusters since it began in 2012 with 174 customers.

"From the very beginning it caught on more than we had anticipated," she said.

They get a lot of calls from businesses and schools where employees had pushed those in charge to start composting.

"Word of mouth is our greatest marketing tool," she said.

She said while saving money is a large part of the motivation, people are also more and more inclined to do what's right for the environment.

She said the company picks up 10 million pounds of waste a year, and that's just a small part of Maine's, or even Southern Maine's, waste stream.

"Not a whole lot of it's edible," she says. "but we do stand to learn a lesson about what we throw away."

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