R.I. Takes First Step Toward Statewide Composting

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Food-scrap diversion efforts will be ramping up in Rhode Island, as the General Assembly on June 19 put the final touches on legislation that requires most large institutions that generate organic waste to steer clear of the landfill.

Starting in 2016, supermarkets, food wholesalers, food makers, conference centers, banquet halls, restaurants, prisons, corporations, religious institutions, hospitals, casinos and military bases that produce more than 104 tons of organic waste annually must donate leftover food or ship it to a compost facility, farm or an anaerobic digester — provided there is one within 15 miles and the facility has room for it.

The bill was held up at the last minute to include language that exempts K-12 public schools. The provision was added at the behest of the R.I. Association of School Committees. The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, said there isn’t a public school in the state that is big enough to generate 104 tons of food scrap a year. She hopes schools will voluntarily manage organic waste, if for no other reason than to use it as educational tool.

“It’s a perfect science lesson for kids,” Walsh said before the final vote. "Once kids get into it they start teaching their parents."

The law also makes sure that food recycling isn't an added financial burden, by allowing an institution to opt out if the cost to divert organic scrap from the waste stream is more that trucking it to the landfill.

Walsh noted that several studies in New England have shown that diverting food scrap saved money for supermarkets.

The commercial tipping fee at the Central Landfill in Johnston is $75 a ton. According to the Conservation Law Foundation, tipping fees at anaerobic digesters across the United States range from $20-$50 a ton. A study by Pennsylvania State University showed an average tipping fee of $36 a ton at U.S. composting facilities. Rhode Island's only commercial composting site, Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, charges $30 a ton for food scrap. The state’s first anaerobic digester is planned for Quonset Business Park.

Rhode Island joins Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont as states with similar laws for managing food scrap. Vermont is the only state that eventually mandates residential composting. Laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut apply to commercial institutions. Both take effect this year.

The Rhode Island bill originally had a phase-in schedule that required all non-residential entities to manage food scrap by 2021. The schedule was removed after opposition to the bill by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and Dunkin’ Brands, the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts.

The legislation received strong support from the environmental community and from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Proponents said food scrap management extends the life of the landfill, creates jobs and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

Walsh said passing the bill is only the first step for making composting a habit in Rhode Island. “It starts the process," she said.