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Friday, January 24, 2014

Stop wasting food

Walsh proposes statewide food-waste collection 
NeoEnergy's food digester, soon to be at Quonset. It will be the first on the
East Coast. (graphic from NeoEnergy via
Get more details on this process by clicking here.
STATE HOUSE news release – Legislation introduced by Rep. Donna M.Walsh would sow the seeds for more widespread composting and reduction of food-scrap waste in Rhode Island.

The legislation is aimed at extending the limited life of the state’s Central Landfill by reducing the waste dumped there, harnessing the waste’s potential for production of energy and organic fertilizer and giving a boost to Rhode Island’s green economy.

“Tossing food scraps in the landfill is wasteful on so many levels. Instead of letting this organic material fill up valuable landfill space, we ought to be looking to Europe’s example and putting our food waste to work. With the proper facilities, it can be used to fuel power plants, and it can always be composted on small and large scales to create fertilizer. We might as well be tossing money in the landfill when we put food scraps in there,” said Representative Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly, New Shoreham).

Representative Walsh’s legislation (2014-H 7033) would phase in a requirement that all non-residential food waste be separated from waste headed for the landfill and recycled or otherwise processed in a useful way, provided there is a facility available. The requirement would be phased in beginning with large producers – those producing an average of more than one ton of such waste a week, most likely colleges and other large institutions – in 2015, down to smaller-scale producers, eventually applying to all Rhode Island businesses and institutions by 2021. Massachusetts and Connecticut have similar requirements aimed at large institutions, and a Vermont law will require recycling of all commercial and residential food waste by 2020.

Under Representative Walsh’s legislation, institutions subject to the requirement would be required to educate those disposing of waste – for example, students in a college dining hall – about how to separate food waste from other garbage and where to properly dispose of it. The institution could then either send the food waste to a food waste recycling facility or recycle the material itself onsite, provided it is equipped to do so safely and in compliance with all laws.

Johnson & Wales University is already diverting food scraps in this way at its Harborside campus, diverting scraps from two of its buildings – which include a student dining facility and JWU’s culinary training programs – to food digesters that convert it to compost that is used to enrich soil and mulch. University officials estimate they had been generating over 200 tons of food waste a year at each of the two buildings, and that it made up about 85 percent of the waste there.

Representative Walsh said she got the idea for her legislation during a recent tour of Quonset Business Park, when she learned about a company called NEO Energy that is working to establish an anaerobic digestion facility there. The plant would accept food waste from supermarkets, food-processing companies, restaurants, institutions and municipalities, separate the biogases for use as a fuel to generate electricity and heat, and recycle the remaining solids as organic fertilizer. 

Similar plants are widespread in Europe and around the world, especially in Germany. There are more than 1,600 such plants in the United States, mainly located at wastewater treatment plants, although relatively few use the biogas they produce to generate energy.

The requirements in her legislation would become effective only when such a facility exists to serve Rhode Island, but the legislation would not require anyone to use it. As long as they are not throwing food waste in the regular trash, institutions would be free to process food waste on their own either through composting or equipment like the machines at JWU.

Representative Walsh said, although her bill does not apply to residential trash, she hopes someday all Rhode Islanders will be separating food waste, and that municipal waste collection would include separate containers for food scraps, just like there are for recyclables. Dozens of large U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, require residents to separate food waste for composting or other processing, and New York City recently began a voluntary program. 

Rhode Island’s small size, and its situation of having a single, statewide landfill that is on track to be filled to capacity by about 2038, are good reasons to consider a statewide requirement for food waste separation. Besides, municipalities save money on landfill tipping fees when they reduce the trash they haul there. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food and yard waste make up about 28 percent of what’s thrown out nationwide.

“Many Rhode Islanders, in the cities, the suburbs and the rural communities, are already composting at home. It’s easy once you get in the habit, and there are so many benefits. I look forward to generating some healthy public discussion about recycling food scraps this year as we consider this legislation, and I hope we’ll be doing something better with much of the food waste in our state soon,” said Representative Walsh.