Rhode Island Food-Scrap Bills Debated

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Opposing sides staked their positions as two new bills to support statewide composting were recently debated. Hearings in the House and Senate pitted environmentalists against the restaurant industry.

Terrance Martiesian, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, which represents hundreds of Rhode Island restaurants, opposed bills H7033 and H7482, saying small restaurants, particularly those on Federal Hill, don’t have the space to segregate food scrap. Ultimately, he said, collecting food scrap would hurt tourism.

“This is Rhode Island, it’s an expensive place to do business,” Martiesian said during the March 6 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Criticism of the bills received support from a surprising source: Kristin Gennuso, co-owner of Chez Pascal on Hope Street. For several years, the East Side restaurant has composted its food scrap and voiced support for comprehensive food-reduction efforts.

However, Gennuso said the lack of a transportation system for collection would force restaurants to pay employees to deliver food scrap to a composting site or other organic waste processing facility.

“There’s nothing in (the legislation) to help us,” she said.

Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, sponsor of both bills, noted that many smaller restaurants would be exempt from segregating food scrap for at least five years, during which time the transportation infrastructure would be developed as other larger institutions such as universities and hospitals lead the way.

“By that time, I think a lot of the issues we’re talking about (such as) costs ... would be worked out by then,” she said.

Both bills target large institutions. H7482, which was drafted by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), would require entities that create at least 104 tons of organic waste a year to compost or have the material processed separately. H7033 would require institutions that produce at least 52 tons of food scrap a year to comply. Each year, additional institutions would be required to comply.

Other large institutions that would be required to comply would include food wholesalers and distributors, food manufacturers and processors, conference centers, banquet halls, religious institutions, military installations, prisons, corporations, hospitals and casinos.

The bills received support from the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, the state Office of Energy Resources, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and the Sierra Club of Rhode Island.

The bills also have bipartisan support. Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said the bills would create innovative technologies that students can create and use in the classroom.

Although Rhode Island has only one large facility to compost food scrap — Earth Care Farm in Charlestown — advocates said creating new organic waste regulations will spur innovation for new facilities and create jobs. Anthony Callendrello, chief operating officer of NEO Energy, said his company is moving ahead with building an anaerobic digester at the Quonset Business Park. A second, by a different company, is planned for Johnston.

“It will encourage companies like mine that develop the infrastructure to process food residuals,” Callendrello said of the legislation. “We certainly would like to build some facilities.”

Meanwhile, Leo Pollock and Nat Harris will soon be kicking off their industrial-scale composting initiative with a pilot program that will initially collect food scrap from schools and restaurants and deliver the material to Earth Care Farm. Eventually, The Compost Plant will accept food scrap from the urban communities around Greater Providence and turn it into nutrient-rich compost.

Neither bill mandates residential composting. However, Walsh said she hopes the bills would lead to some form of curbside collection like those in Seattle and San Francisco.

Bill H7033 was modeled on Connecticut legislation passed in 2011. That law requires comprehensive food-scrap management for large institutions. It exempts religious institutions, hospitals and schools. Advocates for the law expect all institutions will join the program in order to receive the expected cost-savings.

At the annual Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show, held March 10 at Salve Regina University in Newport, K.C. Alexander of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Connecticut only has three composting facilities while other organic waste facilities are being planned. Many details, however, are being addressed as the law takes effect, she said.

“I think Rhode Island can do this. It may take a while,” Alexander said.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill were held for further study.