Are We Any Good at Composting?

As the Johnston landfill reaches new heights, the state is finding creative ways to divert all our leftovers from the heap.
composting
Illustration by Boyoun Kim.

But there are many more steps to go before the state can effectively divert all of its food waste. Antonia Bryson, who heads the RIFPC’s environmental committee, says that Massachusetts is a good model. When its ban went into effect in January 2014, the state funded RecyclingWorks, a program providing regulated entities with technical experts to help them figure out how to store unwanted food, donate safely and find haulers and a destination for that waste. Bryson says the state needs to start planning for where all of this diverted waste should go — perhaps writing new regulations that allow towns to form regional composting stations, or providing tax incentives that encourage new food waste-related businesses.

“There’s a lot more potential,” she says.

Under a one-year free lease for two acres of town land in Warren, Pollock and Harris bag Earth Care compost and other soil blends and sell it under the Rhody Gold brand name. They are developing a plan to extend the lease and improve the town’s current composting operation, to cut down on the costs of transporting it to Charlestown.

Next month, Blue Sphere, a global waste-to-energy company, will open Rhode Island’s first anaerobic digester facility in Johnston. Located within fifteen miles of urban centers such as Providence, Cranston and Pawtucket, Blue Sphere offers a new opportunity for large generators of food waste to comply with the law. Anaerobic digesters employ microorganisms to break down organic waste in the absence of oxygen. The released methane is converted to electrical energy and the byproduct — a nutrient-rich digestate — can be used as a soil amendment.

Each year, Blue Sphere expects to turn 80,000 tons of food waste into 3.2 megawatts of electricity — enough to supply 3,000 households — and 10,000 tons of fertilizer. Those numbers only begin to divert the more than 941,000 tons of food waste consultants identified in Rhode Island, says Blue Sphere CEO Shlomi Palas. The good news, he says, is Rhode Island is willing to do something about it.

“New England and California are very friendly to renewables. There are a lot of laws in place that already motivate companies like us to locate our business there,” Palas says.

In the meantime, the planet has its own waste recycling system. The leaves fall from the trees and slowly rot on the ground, the decomposition is food for microorganisms and insects that, in turn, provide nutrients for the tree. That’s the scheme Michael Merner sought to emulate forty years ago, when he opened Earth Care Farm.

Today, an organic farm fronts the facility and the 500-yard piles of organic waste gird the backside. There’s a little piece of every part of Rhode Island refuse in those piles: seaweed and clam shells, animal waste from Roger Williams Park Zoo, scraps from tony Providence restaurants. Last year, Earth Care turned 1,200 tons of organic waste into gardeners’ gold. Jayne Merner Senecal, who has taken over the business from her father, says that the food waste law has been good for Earth Care.

“I hate to force people to do anything, but sometimes you need a little prompting,” she says. “We can make something more valuable instead of filling the landfill. It’s possible in every realm of our society to make things better.”

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