Mass Innovations, from The Beacon, May 2010

The towns of Hamilton and Wenham have launched what local officials and volunteers hope will become a sustainable program for recycling household food waste.

Participating residents pay a $75 annual fee to help cover the cost of shipping the organic waste to a local composting site. Participants receive a 13-gallon bin with wheels and a flip-top lid as well as a smaller countertop collector. Participants also are entitled to as much compost as they need from Brick End Farms, the Hamilton company that receives the organic waste.

Gretel Clark, chair of the Hamilton-Wenham Recycling Committee, said the initiative is in a second pilot phase. (A much smaller pilot program, involving 74 Hamilton families, was completed over the winter.)

According to the Recycling Committee’s research, organic waste accounts for roughly 40 percent of the solid waste that the typical household generates (about 10 to 12 pounds out of 27 pounds per week). Clark said the food waste program has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of trash that the town must pay to have hauled away.

Curbside pickup of waste that can be converted into compost has become common in California, Oregon and Washington, but the municipal program in Hamilton and Wenham is believed to be the first of its kind on the East Coast.

By the time the Hamilton-Wenham program got under way this spring, 545 people had signed up, representing 17 percent of homes in the two towns. The towns need 770 participants, however, in order to ensure the program’s survival beyond fiscal 2011, according to Hamilton Town Administrator Candace Wheeler.

This spring’s roll-out was placed in jeopardy by the reluctance of the two towns to allocate funds to match $7,000 in grant money from the Department of Environmental Protection.

“At a time when we were literally looking to save a few dollars here, a few dollars there, selectmen felt that they would have to ask for Town Meeting approval and that would delay the program,” Wheeler said.

To make up for the shortfall, the Recycling Committee succeeded in raising the $7,000 from residents and other private sources.

“The generosity of the donors saved us,” Wheeler said.

Local officials are hoping to sustain the program into the beginning of fiscal 2012, when they assume the program will be financed through a new or existing revolving fund related to waste disposal, Wheeler said.

She added that Hamilton could seek to enact a bylaw making organic-waste recycling mandatory, “but that’s something you don’t want to do, because it’s hard to enforce.”

According to the trade publication BioCycle, the vast majority of municipal organic recycling programs are voluntary. But San Francisco approved a mandatory program last June, and Seattle has a similar program.

For more information, contact Hamilton Public Works Director John Tomasz at (978) 468-5591.