Last week the 2017 Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show was held at Rhode Island College in Providence organized by Greg Gerritt of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and Jim Murphy, the Director of Sustainability at the college. I suspect that when most people think of composting, they think about that pile in the backyard or perhaps a larger bin at the community garden or school year. Some of the workshops and exhibitors at the conference did focus on small scale composting but the takeaway theme was the need for a larger and more regionalized compost infrastructure.
That does not necessarily mean larger composting operations but rather a larger network for moving compostable items to places where they can be composted and either used by the composter or distributed in some other manner.
According to Rhode Island Food Strategy, about 35% of waste in that state consists of food and other compostables. Similar numbers have been cited nationwide. If not diverted from the waste stream, these items will end up in landfills or incinerators. Compostable trash not directly buried, may be incinerated first but then the ash is landfilled. Since the cost of hauling trash away depends on weight and food wastes are especially heavy, we as individuals or as a society are spending a lot of money burning and burying what really is the basis for an excellent soil amendment. Plus many landfills in New England are reaching capacity and the problems associated with them often makes them unwelcome neighbors. To this end, New England states including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have all passed legislation in an attempt to divert organic materials from landfills to composting facilities.
Our two morning plenary speakers were from SCS Engineers, a national environmental consulting firm. They gave us an overview of some compost technologies from open windrow to aerated static pile to in-vessel. Depending on the technology used, composting can be quite controlled and operations can be successfully sited in more urban locations. A most engaging concept promoted by this company was sharing. Expensive equipment like windrow turners and mixers were purchased by SCS and contracted out to multiple mid-sized compost operations which greatly benefited by using this equipment but would not have the funds to purchase them.
One version of community composting was covered by Michael Bradlee of Earth Appliance who set up a Compost Depot at Frey Gardens. Using those large (65 gallons I think) lidded trash bins, he set up a composting system in a small community garden designing a pipe system to aerate the bins so they could stay closed. As part of an urban initiative, folks were encourage to bring their food scraps to the compost site in covered 5 gallon buckets. They could exchange their full one for an empty one. Michael mixed the food wastes with leaves and would aerate the bins with either a hand aerator or power auger on a weekly basis. He kept records of the temperatures and adjusted his aeration system to keep the composting process active year round.
Karen Franczyk, the Green Mission Coordinator for the North Atlantic Region gave a presentation on how Whole Foods manages food scraps and I must say I was quite impressed and wished there was a store in my area. First, they work with other agencies in the community and donate any leftover food items pretty much on a daily basis. I don’t know what the numbers are in other states but in Rhode Island, 12% of the population is food insecure which means that these people do not know where there next meal will come from.
All discarded items are sorted according to whether they can be recycled, composted or put into the trash stream. Employees are educated about their disposal systems and the company has been participating in a zero waste day each year.
Some of the more urban stores have limited areas for storing compostables until they can be picked up so a Grind2Energy system is employed instead. All compostable food items are put through a large grinder, water is added when necessary and the slurry is stored in tanks outside the building. The slurry gets picked up and trucked to a dairy farm in Rutland, MA which uses it to produce methane to heat their operation and also as fertilizer.
The closing speaker was Lorenzo Macaluso from the Center for EcoTechnology. This private, nonprofit provides free assistance to help businesses and institutions implement programs to divert waste food from disposal. He noted that for food waste diversion programs to be successful they depend on policy, infrastructure, education, technical assistance and regulation. All these pieces need to be on the same page and working towards that goal.
If you are interested in learning more about food waste in America, check out the UConn Science Salon’s offering on April 6 at the Spotlight Theater in Hartford. The topic is ‘Throwing it All Away: America’s Food Waste Epidemic’. Find out how the excessive amount of food waste from production to consumer affects food security, resource conservation, climate change and more. Find out more at: http://sciencesalon.uconn.edu/upcoming-events/
Those interested in spreading the word about composting might want to consider enrolling in the UConn Master Composter Program held each fall. Information about program location, instructors and registration will be available in July at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.