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Lambertville seeks to curb bad habits in composting program

Last month, at the June 20 Lambertville Governing Body meeting, Mayor Julia Fahl and council announced that the city’s food waste contract with Ag Choice Organics Recycling in Sussex County had been discontinued. The next day, on June 21, the city’s Facebook page noted “the seriousness of the situation was not made clear until the contract was officially terminated,” and posted photographs showing the contamination and linked a Vice News Tonight video showing the larger issue of general recycling overall.

So the main focus of the July 2 Governing Body Work Session at the Phillip L. Pittore Justice Center at 25 S. Union St. was dedicated to the “third can” composting part of the curbside collection program.

Upon starting the work session Mayor Fahl said, “This isn’t going to be fixed any time soon. Public re-education requires time, money and effort and the goal here is just to begin that conversation.”

Fahl asked Business Administrator Alex Torpey to recap the severity of the problem; he zeroed in on the per ton rates of the three different waste collections Lambertville currently has. The prices all fluctuate slightly, but according to Torpey:

  • Regular trash is currently about $81 a ton for the city to dispose
  • Recycling is about $60 per ton
  • Compost is roughly $49 a ton

On the last number, Torpey highlighted the economic benefits of composting. “Everything in the waste stream we’re paying to dispose of at the highest rate. The more that we can get out of the trash part of the waste stream …we’re actually going to end up saving real money by doing that,” he said, while pondering whether partnerships could be forged with other municipalities or local farms.

A new part-time contract with Waste Management has been secured, but Fahl signaled that it’s not a long term solution because the compost has to be driven up to Elizabeth, N.J., and that takes one department of public works employee out of the city for a long time and “increases the wear and tear” on city trucks.

The mayor also noted that the compost program is mandatory for all restaurants, and about 18 to 20 percent of households in town participate in the initiative.

Council President Beth Asaro wondered if the city could stop the program for a time and re-start it to do in-person education, where a participant would have to “come to a session and get authorized,” and suggested starting with the restaurants. Fahl then asked council thoughts on continuing composting or not.

Councilman Wardell Sanders asked what the Waste Management price is compared to the rate Ag Choice was charging. Torpey replied that the city has not gotten the rate back from Waste Management yet, as public works had just sent a test load there recently. He estimated the number will likely be similar to what Ag Choice was charging.

Sanders expressed concern over stopping collection, citing the costs of regular trash outweigh that of composting.

Sanders then asked if the city could work to better identify the sources of contamination. Fahl was intrigued, but wondered if council had the appetite to flag cans that were composting incorrectly, and speculated what warnings coupled with a fine or removal from the program might look like and still emphasized there are costs involved with that.

Councilman Sanders did not have a problem with a fine, but asked if any penalties be also associated with education.

Torpey said that other communities he spoke with issued stickers that are permanently affixed to bins, and bungee cords that make it harder for casual contamination. On contaminated bins, Torpey said, “We can leave a tag of some sort…and put a url to the website with more information on what you should and shouldn’t do.”

The mayor and council agreed that stickers were economical and made a lot of sense, as the current bins don’t even have the word “compost” on them, but the mayor was hesitant about the cost of bungees. Fahl was also concerned about “slowing down” the public works department and noted the city gets various department of corrections workers and they would have to be re-educated on the complexities of the program while residents are struggling to do the same.

Council President Asaro highlighted educating the youth of Lambertville and maybe appointing volunteer block captains to inspect the bins. Councilwoman Julia Taylor echoed that thought, asking if the city could enlist volunteers in the course of a couple weeks to perform spot checks of bins before collection.

The mayor thought this was an “interesting idea,” and might also help reveal which contaminates were the most common offenders, such as grass clippings.

During the public portion of the work session, North Union Street resident Judy Gleason remarked, “Fining people is exactly what we should do. You know who the third can people are — they signed up for it.”

An original third can participant from Clinton Street said, “With regard to education, it has to be ongoing. Since I signed up, I really never got anything else other than the original list, and that was basically it.”

Fahl and Torpey both mentioned better engaging restaurant owners, with Torpey wondering if the city could help them measure waste to better visualize both the environmental and financial savings.

Chris Plummer of Fisherman’s Mark said that the biggest challenge for them was that “once we put it out, it gets polluted very fast…and the longer those bins sit on the curb, the more likely they are to get trashed,” mentioning Fisherman’s Mark has collection three times a week for composting.

Mayor Fahl responded that in the bigger picture, “this system was not built to succeed,” underlining that the city collects trash, recycling and compost five days a week, while street sweeping from April through October.

Fahl closed this portion of the work session by saying, “I think that enters into a larger conversation about whether or not the City of Lambertville is really committed to having an entirely public waste pickup system,” and remarked that the city may have to examine the cost of privatizing a portion or all of the collection.

The mayor continued saying she hoped to better re-educate the workforce and citizenry, and aimed to work through legislation and the environmental commission to start to compost better, highlighting an online campaign and other events.

According to Ag Choice’s 2018 report, they collected 22.89 tons of material waste from the city of Lambertville in 2018, a decrease of more than half of what was collected in 2017.

Ag Choice only collected residential composting from two municipalities — the other being the town of Newton, which borders where the facility is located in Sussex County.

The next mayor and council meeting will be a special work session on Monday, July 8, and will be dedicated to the Route 29 “road diet.” Council and representatives from the Department of Transportation will make a presentation to the public, which will make the road a “one lane in, one lane out road,” according to Fahl.

About the author

Steve Chernoski

Steve Chernoski is a writer, film director and teacher who lives in Lambertville. Here's his website:

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