Government

Bill Aims to Boost Compost Industry, Prolong Landfill

PROVIDENCE — On the same day Rhode Island’s annual compost conference was to be held — it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — compost enthusiasts testified at the Statehouse in favor of expanding the burgeoning industry.

The practice of turning food scrap into a soil amendment or livestock feed is nothing new. For much of the 20th century, local pig farmers collected food scrap from homes and businesses in Rhode Island and across the country. The service died off with the advent of centralized landfills. But enthusiasm for turning scrap into a rich fertilizer has always had a broad, if under-appreciated, following.

The movement’s unofficial leader in Rhode Island, Greg Gerritt, founded and runs the Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show. During the past dozen years, some 15 compost-related businesses have launched, including commercial and neighborhood collection services and composting sites. An anaerobic waste-to-energy digester is opening in Johnston to service large organic waste producers such as grocery stores and seafood processors.

The law that passed in 2014 required businesses producing at least 2 tons of food scrap per week to donate or provide the organics as animal feedstock. Composting is required if a facility is within 15 miles of the food producer. A new bill reduces the volume to 1 ton a week and increases the radius requirement from 15 to 30 miles.

Most who supported the bill spoke of the benefit of diverting organic waste — about 145,00 tons annually — from the Central Landfill in Johnston. The state’s primary waste facility is expected to reach capacity by 2034. A new site, if one can be found, would cost up to $150 million.

Others spoke of the benefits of reducing climate emissions such as methane. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the third-largest emitters of methane in the country. While compost has some emissions, it’s considered a source of carbon sequestration because it keeps the nutrients in the soil.

Brittany DiCenzo testified at the March 12 House committee hearing that the changes would allow her to open a commercial processing facility in North Smithfield, called American Organics, making it the largest composting facility in northern Rhode Island.

She asked the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources to pass the bill “as I am willing to support the state and to increase the longevity of the landfill and keep large amounts of methane gas from reaching our landfill.”

If operational, her facility would join the state’s two other commercial composting businesses: The Compost Plant in Providence and Earth Care Farm in Charlestown.

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access, which offers composting services to residents and businesses on Aquidneck Island and neighboring communities, said expanding the law would change public habits and perception.

“When you have restaurants that start composting and schools start composting, it’s behavior change, you notice it, it changes the process of how you deal with waste,” he said.

Katie Murphy of the compost micro-hauler Harvest Cycle Compost said the bill would boost an industry that is poised to take off.

“There’s a lot of potential jobs there. There’s a lot of potential money in this industry and bringing in more generators will definitely jump-start that,” Murphy said.

As additional large institutions, such as colleges, participate the lower prices will get for everyone, she said.

“The savings are going to ripple out beyond those restaurants that are covered by the ban,” Murphy said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, said the state Department of Environmental Management and Department of Transportation are meeting soon to discuss making compost mandatory in public works projects, thus reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

“The way to create a circular economy is to create demand,” Ruggiero said.

The bill was held for further study. If approved, the changes would take effect Dec. 31.

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