Senate Bill Offers Tamer Response to Composting

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Debate continues on legislation that would ban food scrap from the landfill, but there is no indication yet of the fate of three bills that address organic waste.

A Senate bill, heard May 14 at a Statehouse hearing, is a tamer version of food-diversion efforts underway in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. The Rhode Island bill only requires composting from large institutions, such as supermarkets, hospitals, universities, banquet facilities or other sources that generate at least 104 tons of organic waste annually. Also, only food-producing entities within 10 miles of a composting site or other organics management facility would have to comply. The ban doesn't apply to residences.

Despite its relatively benign requirements, the bill is opposed by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, which represents hundreds of restaurants, and Dunkin' Donuts, which has more than 140 fast-food establishments in the state.

Lenette Boisselle of the Hospitality Association is concerned that food-scrap diversion creates a burden on restaurants by requiring training of staff and hauling of the scrap. She suggested that a study commission first examine costs and methods of transporting food scrap to a processing facility.

Supporters of the bill noted that the collection would likely be provided by existing waste haulers and that the cost to deliver it to a compost facility or food digester might be cheaper than traditional waste collection. The bill contains a waiver provision that would allow an institution to opt out of the composting mandate if it costs less to have food scrap dumped in the landfill than delivered to a compost facility.

The current commercial tipping fee at the Central Landfill in Johnston is $75 a ton. According to the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), the tipping fees at anaerobic digesters across the United States range from $20 to $50 a ton. CLF cited a Penn State study that showed an average tipping fee of $36 per ton at U.S. composting sites. Rhode Island's only commercial composting site, Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, charges $30 a ton for food scrap.

Terry Gray, the state Department of Environmental Management's assistant director for Air, Waste & Compliance, said food diversion is an economic opportunity “to get an important emerging recycling industry off the ground in Rhode Island.”

The House has two compost bills. H7482 is similar to the Senate bill and has no phase-in for institutions that generate smaller amounts of food scrap. H7033 has a six-year phase-in period that eventually requires all institutions to manage organic waste.

Connecticut’s food-scrap ban starts this year and requires composting by all facilities generating 104 tons of organic waste to use a compost or digester within 20 miles. Vermont has the most aggressive law, requiring all institutions and even residences to divert food scrap from the waste stream by 2020. Massachusetts requires commercial entities to donate or repurpose food first before having it shipped it to a compost facility, anaerobic digester or farm. The law applies to commercial entities creating a ton or more of food scrap a week. The Massachusetts law takes effect Oct 1.

During the recent hearing, there were no comments or questions from members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

The CLF estimates that food recycling would also help curb methane leaks from the Central Landfill. The CLF is suing the Rhode Island Resources Resource Recovery Corporation, which operators the Johnston landfill, in part because of the methane release at the facility, which it says violates the federal Clean Air Act.

Methane is 30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and landfills are considered the third-largest source of methane emissions in the United States. Methane is created when organic waste decomposes. An anaerobic digester burns methane, while composting create soil amendments that store carbon emissions.

Support for the bill comes from the Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Food Policy Council and Clean Water Action.

The Senate bill was held for further study. A follow-up hearing will be held May 28. Both House bills were discussed at a hearing in March.