By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PAWTUCKET — Dirt draws a big crowd these days.
About 300 attendees, including a few dignitaries and more than 50 high-school students, took in the third annual Compost Conference & Trade Show at Hope Artiste Village on Feb. 27. Much like the previous conferences, there was a heartfelt call to action for diverting organic waste from the Johnston landfill through a compost collection and processing program — on any scale.
Inaction on a system of any sort was an obvious source of frustration. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Washington, D.C., where the word "sustainability" is akin to communism, won't be any help. "I think the Capitol building and ExxonMobil world headquarters are the only places where they don't get it and we have to do something about it."
Locally, Michael Merner, 30-year owner and founder of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, seemed overcome by emotion due to a lack of progress. "All the pieces to this puzzle are right here in this room," he said. "We're there. We just don't know it."
Speakers representing regional compost businesses and trade groups expressed a similar sentiment.
"It's simply staggering about the amount of waste that is out there and it's not being recycled," said Michael Virga of the U.S. Composting Council.
The numbers haven't changed much in recent years — about 33.5 million tons of food waste are tossed away annually across the country. New food-scrap-to-compost programs are trying to meet the need. During the past two years, Virga said, compost programs reached a total of 150 in 16 states, an increase of 50 percent. "We've only scratched the surface in what we can do," he said.
Rhode Island shows few signs of progress. Orbit Energy Inc., the North Carolina company that at last year's compost conference announced plans to build an anaerobic food waste digester at the Central Landfill, isn't returning phone calls or e-mails, according to conference organizer, Greg Gerritt.
Gerritt said the challenges to comprehensive composting in Rhode Island haven't changed: a lack of a test site and artificially low tipping fees at the state landfill, which discourage diverting food waste. His suggestions of raising tipping fees and outlawing organic waste at the landfill drew applause. He also encouraged the creation of a statewide composting association, along with the formation of composting hubs.
"The tip fees at the Central Landfill haven't changed in twenty years," Gerritt said. "By show of hands, how many of you here today can say that the cost of anything in your life hasn't gone up in twenty years?" Nary a hand was raised.
"It's going to take a while to get there," Gerritt said. "And we're going to get there."
Michael Bradlee, founder of the newly created Earth Appliance, reported success with his pre-composting bins that dramatically breakdown food scrap volume before they require hauling.
The 10 cubic feet of food waste each person creates a year, Bradlee said, shouldn't be considered waste at all. "This is what we throw away, or have to give back as a gift," he said, standing beside a large cardboard cutout of a gift-wrapped box. "That's our gift."