Will R.I. be ready for mandate on composting?

CLEAN AND GREEN: Nat Harris washes The Compost Plant's truck after food scraps were dumped on a compost pile at Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
CLEAN AND GREEN: Nat Harris washes The Compost Plant's truck after food scraps were dumped on a compost pile at Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Rhode Island may not be ready for a new statewide composting law that goes into effect Jan. 1, with two needed food-waste-to-energy facilities yet to be built and some businesses still unsure of how to comply.

The food-waste ban passed in 2014 requires large entities that generate at least 104 tons of organic waste per year to recycle the material at composting facilities or anaerobic digesters located within a 15-mile radius.

Entities that generate that much organic waste would typically include large companies, state agencies and higher educational institutions (municipalities and schools are exempt). There are some obvious candidates, such as hospitals and universities, but it’s difficult to know right now exactly which entities will qualify, and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management doesn’t yet have an official list.

“Typically, the entities are knowledgeable about the amount of food-waste generated, given they pay for disposal,” DEM Director Janet L. Coit wrote in an email.

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But while most large institutions know how much they pay for trash collection, there was previously no law mandating they separate organic waste from the trash, meaning entities now need to figure that out, which has caused some angst.

“Because time is running short on the official kickoff of this law, we’re finding that some [entities] are kind of panicking,” said Sarah Reeves, director of public-policy programs and planning at the R.I. Recovery Resources Corp., which operates the state’s central landfill.

Reeves and her team at RIRRC, a quasi-public organization, have been working with some of the state’s larger entities, such as Fidelity Investments, Cox Communications and the R.I. Department of Corrections to try to get them ready for the new law. Coit says DEM has been doing the same.

Currently, the state’s only permitted location that accepts food waste is Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. But the farm is far beyond the 15-mile radius of many of the larger entities in Rhode Island and it has a relatively high standard for what type of organic material it will accept, according to assistant manager Sam Fox.

The farm takes in about 15,000 yards worth of organic waste each year and resells about 4,000 yards of compost, so to ensure their compost is rich enough to help grow plants, Fox says, the farm doesn’t want its organic material contaminated with noncompostable materials.

So where else can it go?

Two anaerobic plants, where organic waste is broken down and turned into energy for electricity or heat, are currently under development in the state, but could still be a ways off from being able to accept waste. Blue Sphere Corp. is currently building a digester in Johnston and NEO Energy LLC has plans to build one in North Kingstown.

Shlomi Palas, chief executive of Blue Sphere, fully expects his digester will be ready to accept loads by Jan. 1, but both Reeves and Fox have reservations, as testing new equipment takes time and early winter snow could delay construction. The NEO Energy plant, announced in 2013, still hasn’t received the necessary permits to build, according to Steven J. King, managing director of the Quonset Business Park, but could break ground as early as next spring.

Both plants have energy-purchase agreement plans with National Grid PLC, but neither company has final approval from DEM, although Coit says she anticipates approvals will be in place by the end of the year.

NEO Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

If and when completed, the two plants, along with Earth Care Farm, would cover a good chunk of Rhode Island, as entities in the Providence area would be required to compost in Johnston, and Earth Care Farm and NEO Energy would cover a sizeable portion of South County. It’s also possible that smaller composting plants will crop up, as a result of this new law, providing more options. Coit says entities outside of the 15-mile radius are exempt.

But the final piece to the compost puzzle is how the organic material will get to these facilities.

The Compost Plant L3C, an organic waste pickup and hauler, is already doing this work, but its operations are relatively small and it is aligned with Earth Care Farm’s high standards for what’s being thrown away. The Compost Plant hauls the waste it collects from restaurants, cafes and other institutions that are already composting, to Earth Care Farm.

Leo M. Pollock and Nathaniel G. “Nat” Harris, founders of The Compost Plant, would like to expand their model and start their own composting site in Warren, which they hope to pilot next spring or summer.

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