Recycle, Compost, Farm to School

June 03, 2018
Budgets reflect values. The Portsmouth City Council is carefully considering next fiscal year's budget along with several policy-related supplemental requests.

Ecology's number one rule is that everything must go somewhere. A 2016 Recovery Rate Analysis conducted by the UNH Sustainability Fellowship Program showed that Portsmouth has an excellent recycling recovery rate with residents properly diverting recyclable materials from our solid waste stream. However, global recycling markets are rapidly changing and we must adapt. Although popular due to its convenience, single-stream recycling has not become what everyone hoped. Municipal Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are currently unable to separate single-stream's recyclable goods without some cross contamination, meaning the raw recyclable materials our single-stream produces are of lower quality. China, formerly the world's largest consumer of our recyclables, in a commendable environmental effort, has stopped accepting them altogether instead of landfilling those of poor quality. Further, due to scarcity, high quality recycled materials are now just as expensive as new non-recycled raw materials for manufacturers to use to make their new consumer products. For these reasons, plus others, Portsmouth's single-stream recycling program will cost an additional $50,000 to continue this upcoming fiscal year which I wholeheartedly support. However, before our current single-stream recycling contract expires on June 30, 2020, Portsmouth should fully explore all expenses associated with returning to multi-stream curbside recycling with its much lower cross-contamination rate and delay investing both $50,000 in new single-stream recycling totes and $150,000 in the current conceptualization of the transfer station upgrade. Maintaining our recovery rate with multi-stream recycling would likely require a combination of enacting a Pay-As-You-Throw program, eliminating non-recyclable single-use plastics, and expanding our curbside compost pilot. In the meantime, reducing should remain the priority of the recycling mantra. I encourage all to consider using reusable tote bags instead of accepting the plastic shopping bags that gunk up MRFs, pass on plastic straws that at best end up in landfills because they are too small for MRFs to sort, and use your own reusable bottle instead of the plastic water bottles that have decreased in density so dramatically that it takes more trucks, fuel, and taxpayer money to transport them to the MRFs.

The average household can compost eight to twelve pounds of organics every week to further divert reusable materials from our solid waste stream. The Department of Public Works (DPW) has a longstanding successful yard waste composting program. However back in September 2016, I proposed the idea of the City pursuing a curbside composting program for food waste. The City Council received reports back that it would cost $839,834 a year for the DPW to conduct city-wide collection, $466,570 a year to outsource city-wide collection, and $156,000 to outsource collection in a single ward pilot program. Instead of including the ward pilot program in the FY18 budget, the City pursued the current pilot program focused on those interested in participating. The $30,000 budget supplemental will allow for the continuation of the DPW distributing eighty-gallon Earth Eater bins at no cost to residents to perform their own backyard composting, along with the $10 monthly curbside subsidy to residents that feel they do not have adequate outdoor space to compost themselves. In its first year, under this successful pilot the DPW has distributed 180 Earth Eaters to residents and Mr. Fox, the only company currently providing curbside service in Portsmouth, experienced a 51.6% increase in residential customers. More residents composting will result in less taxpayer money being spent on tipping fees at the landfill, less greenhouse gases emitted from our refuse vehicles, and more natural soil available for our landscaping, gardens, & local farms. Further, food waste, dairy waste, and Fats, Oils, & Grease (FOG) are a sustainable energy source that contains 200-600 mL Methane/gram. The organic waste from the continued expansion of Portsmouth's composting program could be combined with that from the restaurant industry, sludge from our wastewater treatment facilities, and feedstock from surrounding communities to power the waste-to-energy Regional Anaerobic Digester at Pease in Portsmouth's Capital Improvement Plan and was suggested for further study in the Renewable Energy Committee's Final Report & Recommendations.

It was unlikely a surprise to the School Superintendent that I asked about the supplemental request to continue the Farm to School Program, seeing how during the FY17 and FY18 budget sessions the only questions I asked of him were regarding the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant for the program expiring. During the past two years, the Farm to School Coordinator has used a combination of school gardens, local farms, and local producers to integrate healthy nutritional behaviors, hands-on learning, and physical activity into many aspects of the curriculum of all our students from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Well documented benefits under this program include an increase in vegetable consumption, reduced screen time, and increased academic performance. Local foods being purchased, promoted, and served in our cafeterias opens institutional doors and significant financial opportunities to local farmers. In addition, the local economy is strengthened when children get their parents to incorporate foods from local farms in the family diet. Opposed to the modern industrial food chain, that begins with far away monocultures and ends with meals prepared from grocery store items, local farms often rotate a diverse number of crops leading to healthier soils, deeper roots, and a far greater variation of well grown, locally sourced, and often more nutritious options for us to choose from. With the USDA grant expiring, the City funding the $58,750 part-time position will allow the Farm to School Coordinator to focus solely on expanding this work without concern for grant reporting. If we continue our current behavior of adding nine billion tons of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere annually, by the end of this century our grandchildren will be contending with a 3 ½ to 7-degree Celsius temperature increase. The concepts that the Farm to School program is introducing to our children will help them prepare their children for the anticipated pre-rice, pre-wheat, and pre-potato climates where the higher temperatures may even cause germination to unsync with rainfall patterns, flowering to unsync with pollinators, and some pollen to even become sterile.

Many in Portsmouth value the existing recycling, composting, and Farm to School programs. I often joke that I am not a budget person, however, it is logical to repurpose the $50,000 that was originally intended for the new single-stream recycling totes and a portion of the $150,000 that was initially planned for the transfer station upgrade to continue these three supplemental programs.