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Monday, December 19, 2011

Breathe better

Food Scrap Can be Better Used Than to Make Stink

By Greg Gerritt, eco-opinion to
The smell from the state landfill is primarily the result of the decay of organic matter. If we stopped burying food scrap and other organics, and instead composted them, the smell from the landfill would be greatly diminished over time, and we would be producing compost that can be used to revitalize agricultural soils in Rhode Island, improve the economy in our communities and increase our resilience in the face of climate change.

In fact, more and more communities around the world are composting every day.

Unfortunately in Rhode Island, it’s so cheap to just pick up everything and dump it on the hill at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s Central Landfill in Johnston.
The legislature has artificially set a very low tip fee, which totally skews the economics of trash and recycling. Now General Assembly members are holding hearings and pounding tables about the inability of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation to fix the problem without looking in the mirror and realizing they are the ones who caused the problem in the first place by setting up such an off-balance system.
The recent report in the paper on the legislative hearing reminds me of the hearings in Providence by the City Council after the city started the “no bin/no barrel” policy of mandatory recycling. There was a three-week shakeout period in which there were some problems. There is always a shakeout period, but the City Council, knowing in advance there were problems with the roll out, did nothing until the stench rose. Then members pounded on tables and yelled, “Pick up the garbage!”
I went to the hearing, and some of the Council members acknowledged it was all for show. They knew the problems were getting solved, but they had to look good, partly to make up for the fact they did nothing at the times when they could actually have made a difference.
Reading about the legislative hearing about the recent stench, I saw nothing about anyone pointing out real long-term solutions. Yes, there is a need for a short-term resolution of the stench, but ultimately we have to stop burying food scrap and use it as the valuable resource it is. Taking proper care of the materials we are disposing of, including those that are critical to growing food, costs a little more than just tossing trash on the hill and burying it. But if we take proper care, we dramatically over time reduce the smells and the high emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane.
Yes, in these hard times no one can afford to pay more to dispose of things, but we can’t afford to keep throwing valuable resources away and polluting at the same time.
Landfills are one of the largest sources of methane emissions in the United States and the simple solution is the one that creates the most value for the community. Compost all food scrap instead of burying it.
For many years I lived near paper mills, and when the weather was right, it was enough to make you gag, so I have some idea what the folks near the landfill are experiencing. In fact, the releases are mostly the same sulfur containing compounds. We need some short-term solutions to reduce the smell today, but we also need the long-term solution of collecting and composting food scrap. I am asking our policy leaders to join in the discussion of how best to remove the structural impediments that prevent us from taking advantage of a valuable resource and fully develop our compost industry.
We will all breathe and eat better.
Providence resident Greg Gerritt is the coordinator Rhode Island Compost Initiative (pdf) and a frequent contributor to ecoRI News.