Time isn’t ripe for robust food scrap recycling in R.I.
Time isn’t ripe for robust food scrap recycling in R.I.
The state Senate version of a food waste bill is considerably less robust than Rep. Donna Walsh's original version.
June 17, 2014 08:46AM
By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND
Sun Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — A bill aimed at keeping food waste out of the Central Landfill, passed in the state Senate on June 4, awaits a House of Representatives vote, which could take place before the legislature adjourns for the summer on Friday. The legislation would require businesses and institutions to separate food waste from non-organic waste and recycle the food waste by turning it into animal feed, composting it, or sending it to an anaerobic digesting facility to be broken down into biogas and fertilizer.
Food recycling legislation, while new to Rhode Island, is already in effect in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey of Exeter (D-District 34), who sponsored the Senate version (Bill 2315 Sub A2), said the legislation would bring jobs to the state while extending the life of the Central Landfill in Johnston, which is predicted to reach its capacity by 2038.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Rhode Island’s green jobs sector, and to keep food away from our landfill,” she said.
Rep. Donna Walsh, of Charlestown (D-District 36), the author and principal sponsor of the House bill, said she introduced the legislation after learning how much food was wasted by being dumped at the landfill and all the ways it could be put to use.
The original version of Walsh’s bill (H-7033), which would have taken effect on Jan. 1, 2015, required anyone producing 52 tons or more per year of food waste to transfer it to a food or “organics” recycling facility. The requirement would apply only if such a facility were available, and no farther than 20 miles away.
Recycling for producers of smaller volumes of food waste would have been introduced in phases, until 2021, when all food scraps would have to be recycled.
The Senate version, however, was extensively amended before it was passed, and those amendments, based on a similar food waste bill (H-7482) introduced by the state Department of Environmental Management, will also be added to Walsh’s bill, rendering it considerably less robust.
The amended legislation would not go into effect until 2016. It also eliminates the phase-in provision, and instead would require recycling only for very large producers of 104 tons or more of food waste per year. It also reduces the distance from an organics recycling facility from 20 to 10 miles away.
“Mine’s going to look like this,” Walsh said, pointing to a copy of the DEM bill. “It’s going to be 104 tons, no tier system, and begin in 2016. It has a reporting requirement in it for the entities, and businesses don’t like that, because that’s another regulation.”
Walsh said the watered down version of her bill is the result of lobbying by businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry.
“Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough, that there is a savings to be had, I believe. It’s a gut reaction,” Walsh said.
John Barth manages Earth Care Farm, the only large-scale composting facility in the state. The Charlestown facility has been operating for 35 years and takes in between 6,000 and 8,000 tons of organic material per year, including yard waste. Barth’s reaction to the proposed legislation is mixed.
“We’re excited that there’s more discussions going on about food scrap recycling and ways to utilize resources that in the past, just those of us here at the farm have been utilizing,” he said. “But we’re skeptical on what’s behind the bill, and we believe that it’s the anaerobic digestion companies that are pushing for legislation like this to make it possible for them to have enough feed stock to justify them coming here. It makes us a little uneasy that these vital resources are going to be used for short-term energy production as opposed to long term soil health.”
He explained that composting converts organic waste into living soil, while anaerobic digestion converts it to fertilizer and electricity. He also noted that the effectiveness of recycling depends on the proper separation of food scraps from garbage and packaging.
“We did pilot programs with the town of Stonington and Stop and Shop, and the twist ties and the elastic bands and the gloves and the Styrofoam and shrink wrap, all that stuff would be mingled in with what we’re looking for,” he said. If loads arrive in Charlestown with inorganics, he said, “then we’ll just turn it away and it’ll end up going to Johnston” anyway.
Barth contended that the tipping fees charged to waste haulers were also a factor in encouraging the dumping of food waste at the landfill.
“The more material they bring in to the landfill, the cheaper the rate they get. To me, if it was really an issue of reducing the volume going to the landfill, you’d reverse that,” he said.
The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation charges haulers without contracts a “gate rate” tipping fee of $75 per ton. Rates for businesses and municipalities with contracts can be as high as $200 or as low as $25 per ton, depending on the type of contract and the nature of the waste.
Sarah Kite, director of recycling services, said one problem with deciding what to do with food waste is that the recovery corporation does not know how much food ends up in the landfill. “Right now, we have a request for proposals out on the street, looking for a consultant to do a waste characterization study for us. Part of that study will be to break out what are the organics that are being thrown away,” she said.
The study is expected to begin in the fall and continue for an entire year.
“We want to do a four-season study, sampling in each of the four seasons, because there are variations in the waste stream, and then the analysis will come after that, so we’re looking at having the results in early 2016,” Kite said.
NEO Energy LLC of Portsmouth, N.H., is planning to open an anaerobic digestion facility to the Quonset Business Park and is exploring additional sites in Rhode Island. The company already operates several pilot facilities in Massachusetts. Its CEO,
Tony Callendrello described the digester as a concrete tank that breaks down food scraps; no sewage is used.
“It digests that, just the way your stomach would digest food, and creates a biogas, in this case it’s mostly methane, which we can then use to generate renewable power, and the byproduct of that is a nutrient-rich liquid which we convert into an organic-based fertilizer,” he said. “Our target market is the professional turf industry.”
The NEO Energy facility at Quonset will be built regardless of the fate of the food scraps legislation.
“The food residuals legislation, we’ll still build a facility there even if that doesn’t pass. But we think it’s good policy for many, many reasons and we do think ultimately it’s going to benefit those generators of food residuals — potentially reduce costs, and certainly a much more sustainable operation,” Callendrello said.
The company is planning to be ready to start construction by the end of the year.
The food scraps bill is being revised to be compatible with the Senate and DEM versions before it goes to a vote.
“We are still reviewing it,” said House spokesman Larry Berman. “The Senate passed it and made some changes, so we are in the process of reviewing those changes and it could possibly be scheduled next week.”