A Tale of Two Banana Peels: Composting in R.I. vs Washington


It’s an overcast day in Seattle, and I’ve just finished eating my non-GMO organic banana from my community farmers market. I take the peel and walk over to my kitchen sink, where I plop it in our compost pail. When collection day rolls around, I take the compost bin from the kitchen and empty it into the yard waste bin outside, where the food scraps mix with the dead leaves and yard trimmings. The bin is then placed on the curb, towering over the recycling and trash bins, making them look wimpy in comparison. I have been doing this same action, give or take the type of fruit, every day for the first 18 years of my life.

When Seattle launched its citywide composting program in 2005, I was just learning how to walk. As I grew up, separating food scraps into the little green bin became second nature. It wasn’t until I moved to Rhode Island that I realized how foreign this idea was in other parts of the country. In Seattle, I was part of the mere 27% of Americans who participate in composting programs. In Rhode Island, without the comfort of my compost bins, the act of throwing my banana peel in the trash made my skin crawl. Putting food scraps in with chip bags and other trash never felt natural.

At home, I never thought about where my food scraps went. I knew they went somewhere to decompose, but that was the extent of my wondering. In Rhode Island, without a municipal compost program, I found myself worrying where my banana peel would end up. A survey conducted by BioCycle in 2023 found that over half of the states have three or fewer food waste facilities. Ten of those states have no facilities at all, and Rhode Island has just one. Let’s use my banana peel as an example — what’s the life cycle difference between my peel in Washington state vs. Rhode Island? What actually happens to our food when it’s carted away in a green bin vs. a black one? In Rhode Island, with that same banana peel, my only option is to throw it in the trash. That trash is later placed in a dumpster with even more trash, a depressing mix of organic and inorganic materials.

In Seattle, separate collection services empty the three respective bins and bring them to the respective waste facilities. The banana peel could end up at a few different composting facilities contracted with Seattle city government. One of these facilities is Cedar Grove, which has two composting sites in Maple Valley and Everett, both about an hour’s drive from my house. In Rhode Island, all the trash goes to the same place: the Central Landfill in Johnston, the state’s only municipal waste site.

At Cedar Grove, my banana peel will join a wide array of other organic materials from residential and commercial locations. Forest Abbott-Lum, from the Yale Sustainable Food Program, simplified the composting processes for the Yale Sustainability series Explainers.

“When a leaf falls from a tree onto the forest floor, it turns into this rich organic material called humus when it decomposes. Composting is when we take organic waste produced by the things that we do as humans and we recreate that same process by managing the process of decomposition,” Abbott-Lum said.

This is what happens to my banana peel at Cedar Grove. It will decompose into a flaky brown substance and eventually be used around the city to fertilize and enrich playgrounds, gardens, and other sites.

That is not the case for my Rhode Island banana. At the Central Landfill, the peel will be nestled in between other trash. Based on the simple concept of decomposition, one may think that food would decompose anywhere, given the right amount of time. This is unfortunately not the case. In order for food waste and other organic materials to decompose, it needs oxygen. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when organic materials decompose in anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) atmospheres, the materials begin to produce and release methane gas.

Landfills, where an estimated 146 million tons of solid waste ended up in 2018, are the precise wrong environment for my banana peel to break down in. The more waste the landfills pile up, the more suffocated the banana peel becomes, building up more and more methane. The EPA reports that municipal solid waste landfills make up 14% of methane emissions, and U.S. food waste is responsible for 58% of that. In 2019, the EPA reported that food waste was the most common material sent to landfills, making up 24% of municipal solid waste.

If you aren’t an environmental scientist, you may not know what to do with this information. Methane has become a scientific buzzword associated with climate change and global warming, but the reality is just as ominous. The Environmental Defense Fund classifies methane as having 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Even though its lifespan in the atmosphere is much shorter than that of CO2, methane has contributed to 30% of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. In short, the thoughtless act of putting my banana peel in the trash inches us closer to the impending doom that climate change promises. In Seattle, my peel is becoming a nutrient-rich fertilizer, whereas in Rhode Island, it’s becoming a harmful greenhouse gas.

So, if Seattle has been composting for almost 20 years, and entire states such as Vermont have mandated the practice, why can’t Rhode Island catch up?

“It is entirely priority based,” said Mark Dennen, the supervising environmental scientist of the Office of Land Revitalization and Sustainable Materials Management at the state Department of Environmental Management. “Vermont is a national leader from an environmental standpoint, and Rhode Island simply hasn’t made the same amount of noise.”

While food scraps might not be at the forefront of Rhode Islanders’ minds, there is another pressing issue that should be cause for concern.

According to Dennen, the landfill is projected to reach capacity by 2040, a mere 16 years away. Based on the landfill’s reports, 30%-40% of the waste in the landfill is food scrap, a statistic on par with the rest of the country.

“When the landfill fills in 2040, what are we going to do?” Dennen asked. “Are we going to increase the size, or are we going to start changing the way we do things to decrease waste?” Dennen pointed to composting as the obvious way to slow the increasing stream of waste to the landfill, but average citizens are not so easily convinced. People want their waste out of sight and out of mind. When composting is built into everyday life, like in Seattle’s model, the public is more likely to buy into the idea. A survey by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that while 72% of Americans do not participate in composting, 67% would be willing to do so if it was “easy.”

The beauty of composting is that it doesn’t take a lot of infrastructure or complications, like its counterpart, recycling. The EPA acknowledges that recycling has limitations, a lack of understanding over what can be recycled, international exporters no longer taking recycling, and a lag in the recycling infrastructure leading to more plastic ending up in landfills. Composting, on the other hand, can be taken care of in our own homes, with only a few extra bins.

Let’s use my banana as an example again — if Lars Erikson, a University of Rhode Island French professor, ate my banana, he would also put the peel in his compost pail underneath his sink. Unlike my peel in Seattle, this peel would not be dumped into a municipal bin. Instead, Erikson takes the metal pail to the back of his house once a week and empties it into his own mini-composting facility — a round plastic drum, about the height of a large dog. There, his army of worms will munch on the banana peel and excrete the material to create fertilizer. Not only will this fertilizer enrich Erikson’s personal garden, it will also gradually solve the problem of the overflowing landfill.

“Looking at the garbage I see on garbage pickup day, our can is almost never half-full,” Erikson said. “Other people can’t even close their lids. I feel like the food waste that we compost takes a lot out of the trash we create.”

By diverting a small portion of food waste from the landfill, Erikson is also helping to limit the methane emissions the landfill produces, one banana peel at a time.

DEM’s Dennen explained that everyone composting on their own plot of land is hypothetically the most eco-friendly solution. “From an environmental standpoint, composting in your own space is the best way,” he said. “There are no extra greenhouse emissions that happen during waste collection.”

While the concept is ideal, not everyone has the time to make personal composting a part of their day-to-day life; however some people have devoted their whole lives to it.

Mike Merner is Rhode Island resident whose food waste sprouted into a family business. Merner is the founder of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, a full-scale composting facility. When Merner bought the property with his wife in the early 1970s, the intention was a self-sustaining homestead, a way for the New Jersey native to connect to the land. He was soon met with the reality of Rhode Island’s acid soil, as the lack of organic matter made it difficult for any crops to take root. Now the 27 acres are filled with football field-sized mounds of compost.

With his background in agriculture science at URI, Merner knew he wanted to avoid the chemical route that many other farmers took. He poured over organic periodicals and consulted older farmers in search of alternative methods of fertilizing the soil. Through his research, as well as his own experimentation, Merner found that compost was the most efficient way to return nutrients to his barren soil.

Fifty years later, Merner’s daughter, Jayne, is running the family’s full-scale composting facility. “I’m delighted to see it continue,” she said. “It’s kind of critical, the earth needs more people doing this. We need more of it and less waste. We have so many resources that we could have such a beautiful planet, instead of a polluted one.”

Most of their customers are Rhode Island businesses who donate their manufacturing scraps, totaling between 50-100 tons of compost a day. Over the course of a year, the farm takes in roughly 50 thousand tons of food waste and produces 10 thousand tons of compost to be sold to businesses and homeowners. The farm does not accept personal drop-offs; however it has received residential compost from curbside pick-up companies that service local areas.

While the farm doesn’t provide a residential solution to the problem of food waste, Janye encourages people to try out composting for themselves. “I think it connects people more to what they’re wasting,” Jayne said. “It makes you feel like ‘Oh man, maybe we shouldn’t have made so much pasta that night.’ Not to shame people, but to create awareness about waste levels and connection to our food, our systems, our earth, and then using it in our gardens is just so great.”

Dennen believes that operations such as Earth Care Farm may be the answer to Rhode Island’s composting needs. “As a small state, Rhode Island is in a much better place to compost. Even if we only had one central location, it’s never more than 45 minutes away, and having regional facilities would be even easier,” he said. “Closer sites mean less cost and less greenhouse emissions used to transport the compost. We have an economic incentive in Rhode Island to reduce that amount of solid waste we create, because we are so small and concentrated.”

According to Dennen, implementing municipal composting in Rhode Island would not be the heavy lifting I assumed. Instead of pushing a boulder up a mountain, it’s more like kicking a rock up a hill. “In my opinion we could do it in six months,” he said.

I was surprised. From an outside perspective, that seemed quick for government work. However, you are less inclined to kick the rock if no one is asking you to.

“It’s a matter of public demand,” Dennen said. “There’s resistance at a local level every time someone attempts to implement even a new private site. No one wants decomposing food in their backyard, so you can imagine the push back we’d get on a larger scale.”

Rhode Island is the second-densest state, trailing only New Jersey. With such close quarters, finding open land to compost in peace has proved to be a challenge.

Earth Care Farm is outgrowing its original lot and is looking to a 241-acre lot spanning the eastern side of Connecticut and the western side of Rhode Island. The lot is hugged by a state forest on three sides, which Jayne said will provide a nice buffer from wary communities. The fourth side of the property is boarded by a pig farm — “a perfect neighbor,” she said. “This kind of land is hard to find [in Rhode Island], it’s just a little too dense and expensive.” The new land will allow the farm to expand and provide a much-needed facility for western Connecticut.

Under the current system, it would be highly unlikely that my banana peel would ever make it into a pile of Earth Care Farm compost; however, with an increase in residential collection programs, my banana peel could join the hundreds of tons of food waste that Earth Care Farm saves from the landfill every year.

Seven miles away from the farm, URI students have taken matters into their own hands. Dylan Murdock, president of URI Students for Sustainability, said composting is “an issue of compassion. Our food waste could be going back into the earth, becoming part of a regenerative cycle, instead of floating in a landfill [or] in the middle of the ocean.”

Murdock and his team recently launched the university’s first composting program in the dining halls. Instead of the food waste being carried away by a long conveyor belt, there are large yellow bins labeled “compost” and student sustainability officers directing food scrap toward the bins.

If I were to throw my banana peel into one of the dining hall compost bins, it would be collected by Remix Organics, a compost company based in Providence. My peel would be brought to an anaerobic digester, where it would break down with the absence of oxygen, and the biogas would be trapped by the digester. Biogas is a combination of methane and carbon dioxide; when trapped it can be used to produce electricity, heat, and other forms of renewable energy. Digestate is the solids that are produced by anaerobic digestion, and while this can be used for fertilizers, it is nowhere near as nutrient-rich as aerobic composting.

Every time I take out my trash, half-filled with partially eaten food, I think about my yard waste bin in Seattle, begging to be full. Since conducting research for this piece, I have learned so much about the composting infrastructure around me, how I contribute to the issue, and how I could help change it, and yet I haven’t changed. The truth is it’s hard — changing routines and habits takes time.

We don’t all need to start our own composting company to do our part. If composting at home is feasible, try for just a week; you may surprise yourself with how easy it becomes. If you don’t have the space, look to your community for local organizations and gardens that would be more than happy to take your food waste off your hands, and put it back into the ground. Let’s all get on the same page: the next time you throw out a banana peel, pause before your fingers drop it into the bin, and think about where that peel is really ending up.

Abigail Chipps is a journalism student at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and a Seattle native.


Join the Discussion

View Comments

Recent Comments

  1. This is a nice thought, but when the entire recycling industry is a complete fabrication, I think we have bigger fish to fry. Fix that and then composting becomes easy.

  2. Well done Abigail!

    I often think about the organic matter that gets locked away inside our plastic garbage bags and is unable to properly breakdown. Not to mention the carbon footprint of having to transport that material around the state.

    Rhode Island is ready to adopt a residential composting system; we just need to take the first step.

  3. I worked with cooperative extension to bring composting to URI about 13 years ago, but failed. Glad to see Abigail making progress. If Abigail wants to connect to what else is going on in RI, she should connect to the RI Food Policy Council, or me.

  4. There’s the problem, that “67% would be willing to do so if it was easy.” I’m not quite sure what “easy” means, but in our house in Vermont, the process entails this: 1-putting food waste into a collector of some sort in the kitchen; 2-when full, the collector is dumped into a five-gallon pail in the garage; 3-every three or four weeks–when the pail is full–it’s taken to the transfer station and dumped in a bigger pail, which is taken to become compost or food for animals.
    I’m afraid that may sound intimidating (aka “not easy”) to some. But it’s really not, and, as the author of this pieces says, it easily becomes part of how one lives one’s life.
    Once again, Rhode Island has failed to do the right thing.
    (And the comment that all recycling is a “complete fabrication” is simply not true: recycling of plastics has been something of a hoax by the plastic industry, but lots of types of recycling are more than worth their while.)

  5. One of my favorite things, making compost. Dad made it “easy” with his homemade bin by the garden. He always kept a garden. All his kids have followed suit. Food scraps – except animal or dairy products – go from the table to the small container near the sink, right to the compost bin in the back yard or in our case, by the garage. There, over time and with a bit of mixing with leaves and other “browns” the food scrap turns to compost and goes back to the garden, or a neighbor’s garden, or the community garden a mile away. Everyone is grateful for the added nutrients. And by the way, compost smells like the good, clean earth it comes from.

    Thank you Abigail, for your excellent research and the terrific article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings