The road to reducing the amount of food scrap that is needlessly buried is littered with easily avoidable obstacles, and history proves it
By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Hyperlocal food-scrap management was once common in Rhode Island. Could it make a comeback? A look at the recent history of food-scrap management may offer some ideas on how the state might do it better.
From about 1920 to as late as 1980, residential food-scrap collection was practiced in many Rhode Island communities. Typically, municipalities awarded a contract to a local pig farmer to collect food scrap. Much like curbside recycling collection, the farmer made weekly pickups of food scrap. Most of this nutrient-rich material was stored in 12- to 15-gallon buckets secured in in-ground bins along the edge of driveways or in backyards.
This scrap was brought to a nearby pig farm, where it was boiled and fed to hungry pigs. It was a sustainable practice. Little was thrown away, and the pig manure was used as fertilizer by produce farmers and landscapers.
Manuel Marshall grew up on Marshall Hog Farm, the half-acre pig farm started by his father in 1930 on Massasoit Avenue in Bristol. Marshall began working on the farm at age 15 in 1965 and worked there until 1980 when the farm was sold. It closed four years later.
Marshall worked 16-hour days six days a week, plus eight hours on Sundays. Each day began at 3:30 a.m., as Marshall and a crew of two others headed out in a single truck to gather food scrap from some 7,000 receptacles across a town of 26,000 residents. The collections usually ended by 7:30 a.m. just as school buses and morning traffic got going. Special trips were made to larger institutions such as public housing buildings and Newport Naval Station, which stored its food scrap in 55-gallon steel drums.
The farm's pigs were eventually processed at a slaughterhouse in Providence. "It truly was a community-wide recycling program,” Marshall said.
Local food waste was abundant and less expensive than buying feed shipped from other parts of the country. Pig farms occasionally took large quantities of spoiled food. Marshall recalled receiving loads of blighted potatoes from Maine, as well as an abundance of diseased cranberries from Cape Cod. Both were fine for pigs after boiling.
“The hog is the perfect recycling machine,” he said.
Marshall keeps a receipt from 1978 showing that the town paid $31,000 to the farm for collecting Bristol's residential food scrap, a sum that compensated seven employees.
Change in plans
By the late 1970s, a push to centralize waste management took hold in Rhode Island. Municipal dumps closed and cities and towns tried to save money by combining their waste and sending it to the Central Landfill in Johnston.
There were environmental benefits to closing local dumps, but Marshall isn't convinced that communities saved money. He also noted that it ended a network of local jobs. “They lost out on a process that had gone on for hundreds of years,” he said.
There were drawbacks and challenges to local food-scrap collection, Marshall admitted. The farm ran ads in the local newspaper reminding residents what type of scrap to put in their in-ground bins. This residential food scrap attracted insects and rodents. Summer residents unwittingly put trash in the food-scrap bins. Summer months also required twice-weekly pickups to reduce odor problems.
Nevertheless, Marshall said the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. “Any time we bring it local, that’s a good thing," he said.
Pig population changes
Similar-sized pig farms once operated across much of the state, in Warren, Barrington, Portsmouth, Cumberland and most communities surrounding Providence. Larger operations have closed in recent decades in Cranston and Warwick. Three larger pig farms still operate in Johnston and receive commercial food scrap from grocery stores and bakeries and expired milk from dairy farms. None, however, offer residential food-scrap collection.
State veterinarian Scott Marshall (no relation to Manuel Marshall) said smaller, local pig farming likely became less profitable. While oversight by state and federal regulators was constant, some communities may have imposed restrictions on pig farming. Many farmers also learned they could make more money hauling trash than collecting food scrap.
Smaller pig farms still exist, and more than ever embrace sustainability. Ronald Vaz, owner of My Blue Heaven Farm in Pascoag, has raised pigs for more than 40 years. Today, his sows and hogs command a premium price locally and from markets as far as Pennsylvania.
Vaz knows pig feed and said local food scrap is best. He collects food scrap daily from the six local public schools in Burrillville, a nearby IGA grocery store and the leftover chicken dinners from the renowned Wright’s Farm Restaurant.
“It’s a really good feed," he said. "Otherwise it would go to the landfill."
Pigs, Vaz explained, are high-performing composting machines. After he boils the food, the pigs pick through bones and nudge aside stray plastic or other debris. Their manure is mixed with wood chips delivered for free by utility trucks from the Pascoag Utility District. The wood is mulched-up branches and leaves from tree pruning done along power lines.
This mix of manure and wood chips is picked up regularly by a loam farmer. It’s a rich fill used as a landscaping fertilizer. Nothing goes to waste.
Vaz collects the food scrap for a fee but the service isn't particularly profitable. His bins require maintenance and he pays a neighborhood teenager to power-wash the empty barrels. “It’s not worth a farmer to pick up (for free). If it comes to them, that’s a different thing,” he said.
Vaz recalled when, decades ago, he collected residential food scrap while working for another pig farm. “That was really bad,” he said, noting that food from residences was often spoiled, moldy, littered with maggots and frozen in the winter.
Vaz tends to his pigs seven days a week. He and his wife haven’t taken a vacation in a long while. But he is content with his routine. His pigs fetch a good price, and he even takes orders for direct-from-the-farm cuts of pork, as well as beef and turkey he periodically raises. His wife also runs a popular goat milk business. The milk and products such as soaps and fudge sell quickly from a seasonal farm stand. He hopes to pass the thriving business on to a relative in the near future.
Until then, many people and pigs rely on Vaz to sustain the community while keeping alive a connection to the past. “I’m really a stupid, old pig farmer,” he said in his amused manner. “I don’t know much.”
There are only seven licensed hog farmers in Rhode Island. There is a big push regionally for composting and other forms of organic waste management. Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut have new laws that transition organic waste from landfills and incinerators to food pantries, farms and compost facilities. Rhode Island introduced a similar bill recently and Providence is experimenting with residential food-scrap collection hubs.
The recently filed bills promote the creation of food-scrap businesses, such as anaerobic digesters and composting sites. Rhode Island has one large-scale composting facility, Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. Leo Pollock and Nat Harris are kicking off their industrial-scale composting initiative in a few months 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 produce nutrient-rich compost.
A commercial-scale anaerobic digester has been proposed for North Kingstown, and pigs farms may also have a bigger role in better managing Rhode Island food scrap — an important resource for rebuilding the state's eroding topsoil that has been buried and wasted for more than three decades.
The road to reduce that number is undecided, but advocates of expanded composting and sustainable waste management have plenty of recent history to draw from if they want ideas on how it might work.