Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, June 19 newspaper on Page A1.
Nearly every participant response to administrators of the Athens’ curbside composting test program has been to express satisfaction with the service.
It’s unclear, though, if the city is willing to pay the cost to keep it going.
The pilot program debuted last year and was extended through the first six months of 2019, with almost 300 households taking part. The program is overseen by Rural Action and is subsidized by the city.
Local officials have sought to gather data from the program to see if it could be sustainable on a citywide basis. The pilot program is set to end at the end of this month.
Currently, Athens residents pay about $12 for trash pickup, included in their monthly water bill. For that price, each household can place up to two 30-gallon trash cans at the curb. Residents that demonstrate they only use one 30-gallon trash can per month can reduce their trash fee to $6.50 per month. Residents also pay about $3.50 each month for unlimited recycling at the curb.
If the curbside compost program is approved for citywide implementation, an additional cost would be assessed to residents who opt-in to curbside composting. However, what that cost would be is up in the air.
According to Andrea Reany, who manages the Zero Waste program at Rural Action, the cost would depend on how many households participate. If the current amount of about 300 households is all that enroll, the cost per household would be about $18 per month. However, if around 1,000 households participate, the cost would drop to $11 per month. If the program were to become citywide, only $5 would be assessed to each household.
According to a survey taken by compost pilot program participants, the majority of respondents expressed willingness to pay upward of $20-35 per month for combined recycling, compost and trash services. Nearly all said they hoped the composting service would continue in some fashion.
The most recent bid from the Athens-Hocking Recycling Center was $132,000 annually for the composting program; the bid was based on the theoretical participation of about 1,000 households. AHRC has helped administer the pilot program and has invested a great deal into composting at its facility in The Plains, according to Executive Director Bruce Underwood, who also spoke at the Council meeting on Monday.
Reany noted that since the pilot program began in August 2018, over 40 tons of food waste have been diverted from landfills. She described this as being the equivalent green house gas savings of keeping 13 cars off the road for a year.
“The goal is to get more people to participate. If the program will cost $18 per person, it probably won’t happen,” Reany said. “But if we are able to get more people to participate and get the cost down, I think it would be sustainable.”
The pilot program has presented households with 5-gallon buckets to hold compost scraps until a weekly pickup day.
One complicating factor for the city is that the garbage fund is “depleted,” according to several officials. Councilman Jeff Risner said that if the city continued to subsidize the program at the current rate, which is about $300,000 annually, the garbage fund would be “exhausted with a deficit” in two to three years. Risner said he would vote no on continuing the program.
“Frankly I don’t see anybody spending $18 a month to take their compost,” Risner said. “Our (recycling) is only $2, and we charge by the bag about $6-7 for garbage pickup. Now we’re talking about a 5-gallon bucket of compost for $18.”
The city has a goal of diverting 50 percent of organic material produced by residents from the landfill by 2020. In addition, the Athens-Hocking Solid Waste Management Plan draft includes a goal to reach a 25 percent diversion rate for all of Athens and Hocking counties within five years.
Reany previously told The Messenger that the program culminated in 22.3 tons of organic material collected during the first six months.
A previous compost program that allowed residents to drop off buckets of compost at the Athens Farmers Market is no longer running, but citizens can call ahead to drop compost off at the AHRC facility in The Plains.