UPDATE: May 27, 2022: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Public Works Department on Thursday formally announced that rolling online enrollment is open for the curbside food waste collection program, with service to begin Aug. 1.
Any Boston resident living in a residential building with six units or less is eligible. The city says it's prioritizing enrollment for residents in "vulnerable communities," which it's determining based on state criteria for environmental justice communities and proximity to compost drop-off sites. The program can enroll up to 10,000 households in this first year, with a goal of adding 10,000 or more every year, pending demand.
Boston is also expanding its food waste drop-off program with nearly 25 new sites in partnership with farmers markets and community gardens.
- The city of Boston is moving forward with plans to launch a curbside composting pilot this year, budgeting for approximately 10,000 opt-in subscribers in its initial phase. “There will be curbside composting in the city of Boston in 2022,” Superintendent of Waste Reduction Brian Coughlin told a Boston City Council committee on March 28.
- The city sought bids for a contract to haul the organic waste, but it has not yet finalized a contract. According to Boston Zero Waste Manager Theresa Savarese, the city has selected one or more vendors from “numerous” that applied and anticipates having a press conference to formally announce the program in mid- or late May.
- Mayor Michelle Wu highlighted “the first citywide composting program” in a proposed FY23 budget shared last week that mentions hiring more support staff at the Public Works Department but does not note specific funding. The department said more details about funding will be coming in the months ahead.
Numerous private organic waste pickup services operate in the Boston area, and the state of Massachusetts is thinking about banning any organics disposal by 2030, but Boston's government has for years envisioned having a city-sponsored program to make composting more widespread and accessible. Food waste reduction is an important component of the city's zero waste plan released in 2019, which states a goal of hitting an 80% recycling rate by 2035 and 90% by 2050.
The city currently operates compost drop-off sites through its expanding Project Oscar program, and it also provides at-home composting resources and yard waste services. Earlier attempts at curbside composting programs were partly derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Coughlin said. And while previous RFPs were based on a subsidized or discounted model for residents, "this RFP rolled out as a fully-funded city program for all residents" to reduce financial barriers to continued participation, he said.
Why now? Savarese said that with support from Mayor Wu, the city is ready to invest in the curbside program and to staff up the zero waste team. Savarese herself is part of that push to advance the zero waste ideas the city had laid out; she began working for Boston about six months ago after several years with the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Boston consulted with numerous other cities with different composting models, including New York, an array of West Coast cities, and neighboring Cambridge, Massachusetts, Savarese said. Seattle was cited as a key example during the March 28 hearing. Officials in Washington, D.C., with whom Savarese said Boston also communicated, have similarly proposed a yearlong, 10,000-property curbside composting pilot at an estimated cost of about $4.43 million, per a draft budget report issued Thursday.
"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution; it depends on what you have locally in terms of processing and also just what works for your constituents. So we heard a range of advice," Savarese said.
Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, noted the city faces high disposal costs currently, so diversion should save the city money in the long term. The city needs to maximize financial gains "by getting all the food scraps and all the yard waste" out of the waste stream destined for landfill, she said.
Portland, Maine-based organics recycling service Garbage to Garden, which said it submitted a proposal, made a similar point. "It is our hope that other communities begin to realize that the savings they would experience on tipping fees through diverting the roughly one-third to one-half of household waste that is compostable could be used to fund and jump start more such organics curbside collection programs," said Marketing Director Annika Schmidt in an email.
Schmidt said the company hopes that if the scale of Boston's program goes according to plan, it could serve as an important model for others. "While we make every effort to keep our program accessible to all residents regardless of income through our volunteer and referral programs, the most effective approach to reach all communities would be through city- or town-wide curbside programs with municipally supported marketing and educational outreach," she added.
Andy Brooks, CEO of Bootstrap Compost, which offers residential and commercial food scrap pickup service throughout New England, said his company did not submit a bid to participate in Boston's program. The company had planned to participate in previous iterations of the program, but those plans were partly derailed by the pandemic, Brooks explained, and at this point, Bootstrap is more focused on expanding its work with small farms and sustainably scaling growth for customers in existing communities. Brooks believes the city will be best served if it opts to combine the forces of numerous vendors to handle this degree of scale-up.
Black Earth Compost, which previously won a contract to service the city's Project Oscar bins, said it bid on this new collection contract but was not selected.
At its outset, the pilot will be capable of serving buildings with seven or fewer units. Many Boston Housing Authority properties fall into these parameters, Savarese said. As for future expansion and working with larger buildings, "it's going to be an ongoing conversation," she said. "This is the first time, obviously, that Boston's ever doing this. So we're kind of dipping our toes in first." Gauging feasibility and engagement, "our plan is to reevaluate after the first year where we're at with the program and see what we could do for the next year."
The pilot will not be restricted to particular sections of the city, though the city will work to heavily encourage environmental justice communities to participate, Savarese said. Public Works recognizes a lack of route density may be an initial challenge, but she anticipates this can be solved as marketing and outreach efforts increase interest in the program.
Where organics will be taken and what they'll be used for will depend on the vendor, but Savarese noted options in the area are generally either composting or anaerobic digestion. "There is waste infrastructure for food waste in Boston, it's just very small. And I would say it'd be advantageous to have a diverse portfolio of where we send it," she said.
The city does have aspirations to increase its own local processing capacity. It recently issued an RFP seeking a consultant to help locate land within the city that could be a destination for organic waste that’s collected.
Cole Rosengren contributed to this story.