compost draft 2011

compost article for NBEJ draft July 2011

Compost article for NBEJ   Greg Gerritt

It is a bit different to write about Compost for a magazine covering the Narragansett Bay Estuary, but when you think about how our recycling of organic matter and its use on the land can have a dramatic effect on water quality in the Bay, it makes perfect sense.

The Compost Initiative grew out of discussions among the Greater Providence Urban Agriculture Task Force, and is formally a partnership between the Southside Community Land Trust and the Environment Council of Rhode Island.  Rhode Island is experiencing an agricultural renaissance. We see this in the growth of farmers markets, and in the growth of community gardens and other growing in the city,. This emerging agriculture requires compost and the original problem for the Compost Initiative was to find a way to turn food scrap in the city into compost for community gardens.  Eventually the mission grew to the idea that all the food scrap in RI should be composted and returned to the land so we could grow more food.

Much research into the structure of the compost industry in places that have a large one, and the differences between those places and Rhode Island that have impeded the development of the compost industry here, followed. The essential problem in Rhode Island is that the legislative mandated tipping fees at the Central Landfill made taking the extra steps needed to divert organic matter from the landfill and into the compost heap are uneconomical.  Places with high tipping fees such as California and Europe have developed a great deal of infrastructure for the diversion of food scrap into a composting system in the broadest sense of the term.  Much of the rest of the world is trying to follow their example.

Traditionally composting is taken to be the aerobic biological process that turns food scrap and other organic matter into compost. With the advent of anaerobic digesters turning food scrap into methane for energy production, while leaving a residue that can be processed into a variety of organic soil amendments including compost,  these days the compost industry includes anaerobic digestion even if anaerobic digestion can to be considered composting..

Currently Rhode Island has a variety of businesses and municipalities that compost on a fairly large scale.    Earthcare Farm in Charlestown is the only operation currently focusing on the composting of putrescibles, to use the technical term for food scrap, and produces a wonderful product that growers love, but Earthcare does not have the capacity to absorb a significant proportion of Rhode Island’s food scrap.  The other large scale composters in Rhode Island focus on leaf and yard waste composting, with municipal leaf composting operations in several communities, and commercial operations operating in the milieu of the landscaping industry.

The economics of the situation tell us that Source Separated Organics household collection is at least several years off in Rhode Island, the $32.00 per ton tip fee at the landfill leaves no margin for extra collections and extra processing of organics from the reduced tonnage of trash buried. But we do have an opportunity with the development of facilities to handle commercial food scrap from the industries with high concentrations of food scrap in their trash; restaurants, supermarkets, and other food oriented businesses.  As much as 50% of restaurant trash is food scrap, so the incentive to compost for food oriented businesses is high.  And with the local food movement being an integral part  of the success of the restaurant industry in Providence, the chefs know that getting the food scrap back onto the land is important to their business.

The Compost Initiative took on the task of catalyzing the industry, an effort to help Rhode Islanders create the infrastructure of a new industry.  The last two winters have seen Rhode Island Compost conferences.  The first year 60 people attended, the second year more than 200.  Those thinking about the development of a compost industry in isolation now have partners and can see the momentum building.  A major development is that Orbit Energy of  North Carolina has received the first of a series approvals needed to build a facility and hopes to open an anaerobic digester/electric power plant with a  capacity of 150 tons of food scrap per day by the end of 2012.  This would handle about half of the food scrap that could be expected to be collected in Rhode Island with a fully developed collection system.  150 tons per day is equal to all of the commercial food scrap from all sources in Rhode Island, but Orbit expects to also bring in commercial food scrap from Massachusetts.

With that part of the system slowly swinging into place the Compost Initiative is now focusing on how to develop the rest of the infrastructure for commercial food scrap with the specific intent of creating compost specifically for the emerging agriculture and to prepare the way for the eventual collection of compostables from households.  The agenda for the week this article was being written was to talk to Johnson and Wales University.  As a center for the culinary arts, JWU comes to mind when folks think of places that ought to be leading the push on compost.  Composting fits directly with all of the efforts in the hospitality industry to green itself, and so beyond massively reducing the amount to waste JWU produces and disposes of at a considerable cost, it gives them an opportunity to integrate composting into the whole culinary/hospitality curriculum .  Slowly a critical mass is forming.  Professors and instructors in the Culinary departments are starting to ponder kitchen layouts for the easy collection of compostables.  And the brownfield restoration at Harborside makes one think that maybe composting could be a part of the restoration of the site while providing real value for the school and its students.

Beyond discussions with Orbit, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, and Johnson and Wales, the Compost Initiative has applied something of a scattershot effort, talking to everyone who will listen, seeking those Rhode Islanders who have something to offer to the effort. One point of departure in efforts to develop a whole system is talking to restaurants in various culinary hot spots around the state to see if they can join together to create compost sites.  Another is suggesting to the hauling industry to bring in some of the innovations it has introduced elsewhere to accommodate composting.   Worm bin production, corporate cafeteria composting, new tools for collecting compostables, and transforming municipal leaf composting operations into full service operation have all been talked about on occasion.

As the sing in Winnie the Pooh, “from here no one knows where it goes”.  It is clear that ecological healing is critical to the future of the Rhode Island economy and our communities.  Compost is a big part of that.  It appears that we shall be able to overcome the obstacles, but how soon, and what it will look like, nobody knows.  But in life the destination is hopefully to be recycled, so the journey to compost for Rhode Island invites you along.

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