Food Collection in the Township of Princeton (NJ)

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  • Community: Princeton, NJ
  • Population: 28,572
  • Urban, suburban or rural: mix
  • Median household income: $114,036
  • Roadside pickup/Drop-off: roadside pickup
  • Started: 2011
  • Payment: $65/annually
  • Mandatory: no

Janet Pellichero is the recycling coordinator for the Township of Princeton.

“At first when [the town government] approached me about food-waste recycling,” she recalls, “I said absolutely not; that’s just disgusting,” she thought, then. “But our town did a four-season waste audit and found that almost 26 percent of what’s in our solid waste stream is organics, which is a tremendous volume.”

And at an astronomical $118 per-ton tipping fee for solid waste, a 26 percent saving was a lot of money. But it was not as easy as she’d hoped.

“I thought, ‘How hard could it be? Hey, I work for Princeton’,” she says. “These people—it’s like Vermont without the cows, you know? They’re smart, they’re very environmentally concerned, they’re in tune. Anytime I would do any kind of program in the town, they would just jump on board and say sure let’s do it—from recycling Styrofoam to backyard compost bins.” But not so much with food scraps.

"I mean, really, you get the early adopters that love it and then that’s it. It became a challenge. Once you’re past the peace, love, and happiness people, it gets hard,” she says. Initially, she tried using the landfill- and methane-gas argument, but it wasn’t bringing the people in. Nor was the argument that in New Jersey, landfill space is at a premium and by reducing their food waste they were saving landfill space.

Show me the money

“In Princeton, the program has just grown by word of mouth through people participating in it and telling other people about it,” she states. And, finally, a selling point has been “the jaw-dropping realization of how little is left behind” once you take out the standard recycling and food—and how much it costs if you don’t.

“There’s almost nothing left, so the disposal fee is drastically reduced,” she says. And in Mercer County, NJ, with very high tipping fees, that argument has gotten traction. But, Pellichero says, “you’ve really got to focus on so many different avenues of message: it is good for the environment, it is good for costs and so on.”

But for people who don’t want to do it, there’s no good in it, she says. “When you’ve got people that don’t want to do it, they focus on all the bad things that have come from it and the smells and the animals and that’s the problem,” she says. The biggest hurdle when she started the program? The animal control officer, who was against it “because, he said, we would have bears all over town. And I’m like are you kidding me?

“But lo and behold, on the day the program started, there was a bear in town, “ she says. “But we didn’t have any problems and we haven’t had any problems with critters.”

Pellichero says in the first five years “every single day, there was a different type of hurdle. It’s animals; it’s facilities; it’s lack of facilities; it’s what type of output you’re doing—are you doing compost? Are you doing energy, fertilizers? Where’s it going? How far? How much fuel are you using, you know, what are your emissions? Are they really down? Is it really helping the environment?”

Reducing the “ick factor”

Pellichero says the “ick factor” was a significant obstacle in the beginning—maybe the biggest one. “People were just like: ‘Oh, that’s disgusting!’ And I would ask them what they do with their food now? ‘We put it in the trash container.’ And I’d tell them ‘I’m just going to give you a pretty green container to put it in instead. The same thing is going to happen; it doesn’t matter if it’s food or food mixed in with trash and everything else, the same thing is going to happen in that barrel— it’s going to smell. And on hot days in the summer it’s just liquid. It is disgusting.”

So an important part of Princeton’s program, Pellichero says, is making curbside collection as easy as possible for residents. “Let’s face it, it’s messy, it’s gross, it’s sloppy in the house, it’s smelly. I would’ve had a real hard time getting people to do the program—it would’ve been impossible if I had just said here’s an option, call the company, recycle your food.

“But we gave them the free curbside cart, and the free kitchen counter collector, the free bags, and we pick it up for them,” she says. “And every spring, you get your compost if you participate in the program. So even though they’re paying $65 a year, they look at it is a good deal because they wouldn’t be able to get that much compost for $65 for their garden or lawn.”

Little things help overcome obstacles

She says making it easy is one reason for the free compostable bags for the kitchen collectors. The other? “The fun time in the winter is when you’ve got a full cart of food that just won’t tip,” she explains, “because the material is frozen to the inside of the bin and it won’t come out of the cart.

“That’s why we promote the use of bags in the kitchen collectors and if people get in the habit of using them, it does keep their cart clean and then in the winter you can still tip it. So we supply compostable bags and customers can only use compostable bags.”

It’s good for the customer and good for the program, she notes, and “by having that simple collector component in the house and the bag to line it, it just is an easier mechanism to have in place for people to just tie it all up and toss in the cart.”

Creating the market

Pellichero suggests if Vermont “wanted to be proactive, it would require schools, institutions, municipal grounds, county grounds, parks all to be fertilized with compost from their composting program instead of any other type of fertilizer. So they would use that and develop their own market by example. And there’s no better thing,” she says, for lawns.

“You don’t have to have the flags down saying this has been sprayed with pesticides and people look at it no other way than positive,” she says

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