I have been composting since 1981, when I first started cleaning sheep barns for a cut of the manure. I fed sheep manure compost to my garden every year for 15 years and watched the clumpy clay and rock soil turn into black earth that could grow anything. Then I moved to Providence and after helping Southside Community Land Trust convince the City of Providence to make it a policy to put community gardens in city parks in partnership with communities, we realized that in order for all of these gardens to thrive, and for the gardens to reduce food insecurity in our communities, we needed good sources of compost in the city.
In RI, 250,000 pounds of food scrap is sent to the RI Resource Recovery Corporation’s Central Landfill in Johnston each day. A good composter, with a comparable collection of leaves from the neighborhood, could turn that into about 40,000 pounds of compost each day, enough compost to put a 2-inch layer on hundreds of garden beds.
Food scrap is the heaviest and wettest part of what is thrown away in RI, stinks up the neighborhood while it is sitting around waiting to be collected, and when it ends up in the landfill it generates methane, which smells bad and does worse things to your body and the atmosphere — it’s 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If we could find a smart and almost odor-free way to turn this food scrap into soil amendments right in our neighborhoods, it would be a source of jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, food security, cooler neighborhoods with expanded green spaces and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2010, I organized the First Rhode Island Compost Conference. And have organized one each year since. This year, to commemorate 10 years of compost conferences, we are going to have five people who have been in the compost field for most of this time period discuss the changes they have seen. The perspectives of regulators, farmers, composters, educators and journalists in short takes should be entertaining and informative. There have been changes in the laws that now mandate composting by the largest generators of food scrap, changes in regulations that now provide a streamlined permitting process for small-scale compost facilities that serve small neighborhoods and changes in the tip fees at the central landfill. There’s now a much wider understanding among the community of the importance of removing food scrap from the waste stream and turning it into a community asset and a number of businesses are starting up to collect and process food scrap and restaurants are taking advantage of these services. There is room for action at almost any scale, from bicycle collection routes going to community gardens to solid waste treatment plants accepting food scrap and capturing methane from anaerobic digestion to power the plant and neighborhood.
The breakout workshops will be more relevant than ever. The breakthroughs in Providence and Aquidneck Island will be highlighted and we shall have workshops on creating large and small scale facilities, a bit of compost philosophy, and how the collection business is changing.
Like all good endeavors in the community, education is a critical component as Rhode Island develops systems that help people manage food scrap so that it ends up benefiting the community rather than as a problem to be hidden away. And we all know parents learn from their kids when this type of innovation is called for, so we end the four-day event with a panel on what is going on in RI Schools organized by Foodscape.
Registration is available online at environmentcouncilri.org/2019-
Discounts to youth groups and schools are available.