Government

Climate Justice, Composting Among Providence’s Environmental Initiatives for 2021

The city of Providence is formulating plans it hopes will address environmental, public-health and social-justice issues. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Sustainability Task Force (ESTF) are launching major environmental initiatives for the new year.

The city department and the citizen task force have steadily expanded their presence since the city hired its first director of sustainability in 2011. Their efforts were highlighted by the release in 2019 of the Climate Justice Plan, the city’s roadmap for emission reductions, climate resiliency, and environmental justice.

The city’s latest initiatives address compost, single-use plastics, and expanding the influence of the the ESTF and the Office of Sustainability.

Compost
The city is making another push for residential compost collection. A pilot program launched in 2013 through a partnership with Southside Community Land Trust had mixed results. The neighborhood drop-off service was funded by the city’s share of sales of recyclable items sold through the state’s central recycling facility in Johnston. The global free fall in prices for recyclable goods wiped out Rhode Island’s municipal profit-sharing. The neighborhood compost hubs were also challenging to manage and staff, and once the money ran out the city’s residential compost program dissolved.

This time, the Office of Sustainability aims to tap into a portion of the $3.9 million the city spends annually on waste and recycling services to pay for a new program to manage food scrap.

If the City Council approves the resolution at its Jan. 7 meeting, the Office of Sustainability, Department of Public Works, and the ESTF will write a new residential composting plan. Using input from local organizations, the plan will set values and near- and long-term goals. It’s not certain yet if the city will look to curbside food-scrap collection, neighborhood drop-off sites, or something else.

“Not sending food waste to the landfill is the goal,” said Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability, at the Dec. 21 meeting of the ESTF.

The push for a new compost program came from the environmental advocacy group Zero Waste Providence. The group led the city’s plastic bag ban campaign and organized reuse programs and business composting initiatives. The group, along with Groundwork Rhode Island, hopes to write the report, conduct surveys, and enact any initiatives that are adopted.

The resolution is sponsored by council member John Goncalves.

New climate rules
Two ordinances are expected to be introduced to the City Council on Jan. 21. Drafts of the ordinances haven’t been released, but one is likely to establish benchmarks for greenhouse-gas emissions and energy use by large buildings through a program called the Building Energy Reporting Ordinance. Buildings are the largest source of climate emissions in the city, producing about 70 percent of emissions.

Another ordinance is likely to broaden the influence of the Office of Sustainability so that the Climate Justice Plan and climate targets are institutionalized in city operations. The office would also have a voice in the city’s capital improvement plan. If this ordinance is approved, the ESTF would be expanded to include two members appointed by an environmental justice group and two members appointed by youth groups.

The ESTF would also change its name to the Sustainability Commission.

Green purchasing
Health and environmental advocates Clean Water Action Rhode Island and Healthy Babies Bright Futures are working with Goncalves and the Office of Sustainability to create an environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) policy.

The resolution stems from a plan to ban single-use plastics at city buildings and schools. It grew to include increased use of renewable energy and purchases of non-toxic cleaning products. If approved, the city and schools would buy paper products with high-recycled content. Other purchases would be recyclable or made of recycled or reused material.

“This broader approach not only helps us address single-use plastics but all products containing neurotoxic chemicals in city-owned facilities,” Goncalves said.

The resolution asks that the Office of Sustainability work with city and school purchasing departments, including food service companies, to conduct an inventory of items that pose health and environmental risks and contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions. Emphasis would be placed on eliminating heavy metals, per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenols, orthophthalates, and flame retardants. These chemicals are common in everyday products and pollute air, water, food, and soil. These toxic chemicals have been linked to autism, learning disabilities, behavior problems, hyperactivity, and lower IQ.

“Leading be example is crucial here,” Goncalves said. “Hazardous chemicals in City Hall, in fact, pose an unnecessary and avoidable threat to municipal employees. We should be bringing in green chemistry and really try to eliminate those toxic chemicals in the global supply chain and in city buildings.”

The new EPP policy would borrow ideas from policies in New York City and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Comprehensive plan updates
On Jan. 19, the first in a series of City Plan Commission (CPC) meetings will address adding elements of the Climate Justice Plan into the city’s comprehensive plan. The changes include strategies to address environmental and climate justice, environmental health, renewable energy, transportation and mobility, housing and buildings, and a less wasteful economy.

“It’s really about institutionalizing that work in our comprehensive plan, which is an important first step to other policy changes that we might want to move forward,” Bamberger said.

Amendments to the comprehensive plan must be approved by the City Council. They are used to shape zoning revisions, land use, transportation planning, and housing decisions.

So far, suggested changes to the comprehensive plan include creating “green justice zones” in neighborhoods suffering from pollution and economic inequality. The amendments make way for creating microgrids powered by local renewable energy and supported by battery-storage systems. Weatherization, jobs, and job training are offered to improve quality of life and make frontline communities healthier and prepared to withstand climate-crisis impacts such as flooding and heat waves.

Other solutions include managing stormwater runoff, nature-based green infrastructure, eliminating natural-gas leaks, increasing tree canopy, and better access to cooling centers.

“These are things that we need to be doing to make the city a more sustainable place and to set a better example,” said Robert Azar, deputy director for the Department of Planning and Development.

After initial discussions in January, the CPC expects public hearings this spring. Any suggested changes to the comprehensive plan are sent to the City Council for additional hearings.

ESTF member Vatic Kuumba praised the proposed changes for addressing near-term needs and long-term goals, such as the city’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“It seems like a really good space for folks as they’re making decisions on development in the city to have this as a guiding post so that we’re moving towards the plans of eliminating fossil fuels in our buildings and creating a city that doesn’t continue displacement,” Kuumba said. “I really appreciate engaging with the energy burden of renters and homeowners, especially in these times.”

New energy manager
Robert Hart was introduced as the city’s new energy manager. Hart replaces Dino Larson who held the position for 32 years. Hart last worked as an energy project manager at the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. Among his duties, Hart will be working in the city’s community choice energy aggregation plan.

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  1. a lot of good ideas but disappointing that despite transportation being the largest sector for emissions, no initiatives to reduce its emissions are noted. The city should emphasize bicycling, walking and transit, not just for their environmental benefits but as good systems for those is a competitive advantage for the city over sprawl locations where people and businesses might be tempted to locate for easier parking and lower density to avoid covid. The city can help promote these advantages by supporting traffic safety measures including a bill to better protect "vulnerable road users. And it may mean standing up to RIDOT that has an ambitious program to encourage sprawl and more driving by seeking major highway capacity expansions and by proposing to harm the transit system by destroying the central bus in Providence and relocate most buses and passengers to much less desirable locations.

  2. The Environment Council of Rhode Island and Southside Community Land Trust started the compost initiative in 2009. It has been interesting to watch the evolution of composting in RI, and nice to see that Providence is finally getting serious. Getting food scrap out of the waste stream reduces carbon footprints, while providing the compost needed to keep the gardening and urban agriculture revolutions moving forward. In addition to the community based initiatives, we have also seen the development of an actual industry of haulers and composters as well as one business that designs innovative compost systems.

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