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Melon rinds, chicken bones, even pizza delivery boxes: Three years from now Madison residents could be putting them all curbside in a third household bin for collection and transfer to a city-run biodigester where they would be converted into biogas and compost.

That’s if the City Council approves $20 million — and the "yuck" factor doesn't kill city recycling coordinator George Dreckmann's proposal.

Dreckmann included expenditures for a citywide organic waste composting program — including construction of a biodigester — in a 2014 capital budget proposal sent Friday to Mayor Paul Soglin.

If the funding is approved and the digester is built on the proposed schedule, Madison would be among the first U.S. cities to run its own digester for residential organic waste, Dreckmann said.

He acknowledges the project is expensive, but points out that it would produce energy and compost for use or sale and save the city landfill tipping fees by taking household organic refuse out of the waste stream.

“Veggies you’ve put in tomato sauce, we take it. Something that goes fuzzy in the refrigerator, we take it. If you use a paper towel to mop up a food spill, we take it. Pizza boxes with grease? We love grease!” he said.

The city has been exploring the possibility of building an anaerobic digester for several years. A 2-year-old pilot program that has been picking up organic waste curbside in several neighborhoods and shipping it to a Columbia County digester shows there's demand for such a service, Dreckmann said.

Expansion of the pilot program citywide is the most popular idea — with 272 votes — suggested by the public on a website soliciting ideas for the 2014 budget. Many people commenting on the idea have participated in the pilot program and report that it has worked well for their households.

“It is SO EASY to participate,” enthused one. “What a great ‘green’ effort that Madison would be recognized for, a city-wide rollout, educational opportunity, and teaching children of future generations this looking-forward environmental approach.”

Reviews were mixed on the second part of the public proposal: cutting back on trash pickup from weekly to every other week. Several commenters said they didn’t need more than that with curbside composting; others didn’t want to see a cut in existing trash pickup. “This idea stinks and so will the street,” wrote one commenter.

Dreckmann’s proposal would reduce trash collection to every other week, with organic waste collection on the alternate weeks. Some pilot program participants have complained about odor and maggots, he admitted.

“There will be some resistance based on the ‘yuck’ factor,” Dreckmann said. “But I think 10 years from now, we will look at this as one of the greatest things we have done.”

Ald. Paul Skidmore, a member of the Public Works Committee, said he would make funding construction of a digester a high priority. “It’s an investment to get it going, but it will pay dividends for the environment and reduce costs. We still have to vet the proposal, but I like the idea.”

Soglin is on record as a long-time supporter of the technology, and worked as a consultant to contractors that build anaerobic digesters before his return to the mayor’s office in 2011. He selected Dreckmann’s idea for a city biodigester as the city’s entry in a national Mayor’s Challenge contest offering big money for the best innovation. (It didn’t win.)

Soglin said he is excited at the prospect of building a digester here in Madison, although he has asked city department managers to limit borrowing in their proposals for the capital budget he will unveil in September.

Dreckmann said the biodigester ideally would be built as part of an existing or new city public works facility to allow electricity produced from the methane gas byproduct of the organic waste decomposition to be used to power, heat and cool it.

Putting the digester near a garage for city vehicles would make it convenient for a new generation of city vehicles to use the biofuel it would produce, he said.

The facility itself would require about 2.5 acres. Possible sites are a vacant supermarket on the far east side the city is proposing to buy to convert to a vehicle maintenance facility and the existing city garage on Sycamore Avenue, Dreckmann said.

His capital budget proposal calls for $15 million for construction of a digester, $3 million for trucks to collect organic waste curbside and $2 million for new carts for residents to use to tote waste to the curb.

The proposed schedule includes site preparation and project bidding in 2014; construction of the digester and ordering the trucks in 2015; and launching the program in 2016.

Getting commercial clients for the program like bakeries, food processors and restaurants would be important to its success, Dreckmann said. His proposal calls for a facility to handle 30,000 tons of food waste a year, potentially including waste from other municipalities, he said.

The technology has been proven in Europe, he said, and demand is growing in the United States, especially in states where landfill tipping fees run as high as $170 per ton. Madison now is paying $40 per ton, but that cost is sure to rise, Dreckmann said. “It’s extremely sustainable technology; it just makes a lot of sense.”

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