Madison’s recycling coordinator has given up waiting. George Dreckmann had hoped to have a citywide composting program up and running before he retires next January, but he knows the city will never make that deadline.
“It’s been moved back a year every year for the last three years,” says Dreckmann, the city’s recycling coordinator. “I can’t gauge the political commitment to this. I just don’t know. There are other projects deemed to have greater importance in terms of the use of the city’s capital.”
For the program, the city needs to build a biodigester — estimated at $12 to $18 million. It would pay for itself in about 15 years by reducing the amount of trash the city sends to the landfill (at a cost of around $50 a ton).
In 2013, city workers collected 190,400 tons of garbage from 74,347 households and 500 to 700 businesses (many businesses and apartment buildings of eight or more units use private haulers for their trash). Of all the garbage the city collects, 69% — more than 131,000 tons — was kept out of the landfill by recycling in 2013, Dreckmann says.
If the city had a full-scale composting program in place, it could keep 80% of its garbage out of the landfill, Dreckmann calculates. Were the program up and running, residents would separate food waste and soiled paper products like napkins, coffee filters and pizza boxes the way they now separate recycling. The food waste would then be put into the biodigester, where it would be turned into methane, which can be used to fuel vehicles or generate electricity, and fertilizer, which it can sell.
The city began a pilot composting program in 2011 to see how it might work. The project currently includes 500 households, 23 businesses and Emerson Elementary School, Dreckmann says. Their food waste is shipped to a biodigester at UW-Oshkosh.
This early effort is not quite up to snuff. The refuse that the city is getting in the pilot is contaminated slightly with noncompostable plastic and small amounts of glass, Dreckmann says. Because of this, much of it is now going to the landfill. Dreckmann is working on a fix.
If Madison had its own biodigester, it could easily deal with these contaminants. But the Oshkosh facility is trying to generate high-end fertilizer to sell to home gardeners, so it can’t have plastic or glass in it.
“We wouldn’t be as dependent on the high-end market,” Dreckmann says. “We’d be looking [at selling] to the agricultural market, the construction market, using it in highway road projects. In a lot of highways projects, you can have up to 30% contamination. I’d hope we wouldn’t be running that high. But it’s a much more forgiving market than for a rose garden.”
If Madison had built the biodigester a couple of years ago, it would have been in the vanguard of eco-friendly cities. But now, many other cities have either built them or have plans to.
“I know this process. I’m frustrated with it, but it is what it is. I wear blinders when it comes to how to spend our money,” Dreckmann says. “But I’m not paid to make those decisions. The project lost some of its urgency when we were able to get the landfill expanded.”