Small-Scale Composting in R.I. About to Get Easier

Rogue composting operations like this one at a Providence community garden could come out of the shadows if proposed changes to Rhode Island’s composting regulations are implemented. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Rogue composting operations like this one at a Providence community garden could come out of the shadows if proposed changes to Rhode Island’s composting regulations are implemented. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

Under current Rhode Island regulations, any composting operation larger than a backyard pile must be registered with the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Because the regulations don’t factor in a compost operation’s size, are extremely stringent, and, in many cases, are wildly inappropriate for smaller operations, they effectively prohibit small- and medium-sized compost operations from opening in the state.

DEM, however, has recently proposed changes to the statewide composting regulations that would distinguish between small-, medium- and large-scale composting operations, and make it significantly easier to begin the small- or medium-scale variety.

Under the proposed regulations, operations that compost less than 25 cubic yards of organic material at a time would be considered small. No DEM registration or approval would be required for these operations. It would be the responsibility of the operator to obtain any permits or approvals required under federal or local law, or by other state regulations.

Small-scale operations would be restricted to accepting leaf and yard waste, certain food scrap, including fruits and vegetables, tea leaves, coffee grounds, and eggshells, hair, sawdust and manures from animals that only eat plants.

Furthermore, these operations wouldn’t be allowed to pollute groundwater or wetlands, cause dust problems, create objectionable odors or attract pests. DEM would reserve the right to inspect these operations without prior notice, and would require operations that are out of compliance to come into compliance within 30 days. If an operation is cited twice within a six-month period it would be shut down until its operator verified to DEM that the operation would be run appropriately.

Operations that actively compost between 25 and 600 cubic yards of organic material at a time would be considered medium. These operations would be required to register with DEM, but the registration process would only require the submission of a form. Information gathered by the form would include identifying information, site location and geography, and a proposed operating procedure. As with small-scale operations, it would be the responsibility of the operator to obtain all other required permits and approvals — federal, state and/or local.

Medium-scale operations would be restricted to accepting the same types of waste as small-scale operations. They would be allowed to accept additional waste such as meats, grease, bones, shellfish and dairy products if the operator demonstrates she/he can do so without creating objectionable odors or attracting rodents, via a 60-day pilot program.

Medium-scale operations are subject to similar conditions regarding groundwater, wetlands, dust, odors, pests, and DEM inspections and consequences as small-scale operations.

Large-scale operations — those that actively composting more than 600 cubic yards of organic materials at a time — would continue to obey the stringent, existing regulations, but would be required to renew their registrations once every three years instead of annually.

Rules focused on design and operating standards for anaerobic-digestion facilities are also included in the proposed changes to the composting regulations. Such facilities are large-scale, indoor operations that convert organic waste into digestate that can be enhanced through composting or made into a fertilizer. Anaerobic digestion creates methane as a byproduct, which is burned, usually on-site, as a renewable source of energy.

A 2014 state law banning large-entity food scrap from the landfill took effect Jan. 1. It’s expected to result in an increase in the number of medium- and large-scale composting facilities and anaerobic-digestion facilities in the state, and is part of the impetus behind DEM’s proposed changes to its composting regulations.

Greg Gerritt, coordinator of the Environment Council of Rhode Island’s compost initiative and the organizer of the state’s annual compost conference, said he will testify in favor of the proposed regulations at an upcoming public hearing.

“We are really going to have to do neighborhood-scale composting — at community gardens or for all the houses on a block, for example,” Gerritt said. “At that scale you don’t have to do serious collecting.”

He envisions small-scale hubs like the ones that currently make up the Providence Composts! program spreading throughout the city and state. Gerrit said he also sees medium-scale operations geared toward small businesses that, for example, could collect food scrap from a small number of restaurants and compost it locally.

The Rhode Island Food Policy Council, a nonprofit network of organizations that promote a local and sustainable food system, has been working closely with DEM for more than two years to make smaller-scale composting feasible.

Antonia Bryson, chair of the council’s Environment Working Group, said current regulations permit backyard composting and large-scale industrial operations.

“We are missing the middle ground,” she said, noting that DEM’s proposed changes to the regulations would allow for smaller industrial facilities, and composting initiatives at churches, schools and community gardens. “There is a lot of interest among these smaller entities.”

Bryson said the council is supportive of DEM’s proposed changes. “The council researched what was going on in other states, then made suggestions to DEM, and most of the suggestions are in the proposed regulations,” she said.

Bryson said the council does have minor concerns, which it will likely submit to DEM during the current comment period. She said medium-scale operations should be permitted to accept waste such as meat and dairy products without going through the 60-day pilot period to prove their capability.

“At this scale (a site operator) is going to be someone that knows what they are doing,” she said. Additionally, a medium-scale operator would be required to explain their methods on their application form, which DEM could follow up on if necessary, she said. “It seems burdensome when the purpose of these changes is to make composting easier.”

Another council concern is that all operations, small to large, are expected to test their finished compost to ensure it doesn’t contain heavy metals or pathogens. According to Bryson, this requirement is overkill for small-scale operations. The plant-based material that such operations can accept pose little threat of producing unacceptable compost.

Written comment sent to the attention of Chris Shafer, RIDEM/Office of Waste Management, 235 Promenade St., Providence, RI 02908 or by e-mail to christopher.shafer@dem.ri.gov will be accepted through Jan. 27.