Providence’s Food Scraps Are a Resource; Let’s Use Them.

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Photo: Freepik

Used books rarely belong in the trash. Instead, most belong in schools and libraries. Those dog-eared pages can feed imaginations and inspire new books. They have value.

Food waste also has value. Decomposing scraps can feed the soil and grow new food. It’s why homeowners know to leave clippings on the lawn after mowing. It’s a cycle: Decaying organic matter is nature’s fertilizer. But decades of dumping our food scraps in the trash have broken that cycle. Not only does rotting food in landfills release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, it has slowly starved our soils of essential nutrients and microorganisms.

Food waste accounts for 20 percent of Rhode Island’s trash. In a state where 29 percent of households face food insecurity, that stings.

And there’s another reason for urgency: We’re running out of space. The Johnston landfill is expected to be full by 2040. It’s the same story everywhere. Food waste is also heavy, which means taxpayers are bearing the cost of hauling fees, energy consumption, and landfill costs.

Composting food scraps checks all the boxes, and neighborhoods across the country are catching on. The hope is that, by making composting as routine as recycling, we can put food waste to good use, cut some costs, and avert further damage to our topsoil and environment. But that will only happen if composting is made easy.

So how do we do that?

Seattle added food waste to their residential garbage collection. Started way back in 2005, the program has been enormously effective. The compost is used in local parks and gardens. But retooling municipal waste collection for food waste is a big lift. Many cities have begun by adopting a community composting model, typically in partnership with commercial food waste collection services. For the price of a coffee and a donut, they’ll pick up food scraps from shared collection sites and haul them away to their composting facility. These programs have mobilized in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Raleigh, Albany, Boston, and right here in Providence.

Providence has launched a network of residential food waste drop-off points across the city. So far, 11 community collection sites are dotted around Providence, including sites at libraries, parks, and community gardens.

Photo: Ella Kilpatrick Kotner, Harvest Cycle

Each drop-off site has locking, vermin-proof containers. Inside are plastic bins where subscribers dump their food scraps. The bins are picked up on a weekly schedule throughout the year. All pickups are done by bicycle—even in winter.

New subscribers get a welcome email explaining how the service works, including the lock combination to their selected site, and access to an online customer portal. The collection sites are open 24/7.

A monthly subscription to the drop-off program is $10. The program is free to SNAP recipients and to those with low or fixed incomes.  “Offering this service at an affordable price is really important to us, so we’ve prioritized keeping our fees low and finding grant funding to support the rest of the program,” says Harvest Cycle’s Program Coordinator, Ella Kilpatrick Kotner .

Originally a pedicab service delivering CSA shares, Harvest Cycle pivoted to food waste pickup exclusively.  Since the program’s launch in 2020, it has grown to around 600  subscribers in Providence, with half of those using the drop-off service. Harvest Cycle has agreements with each of the hosting sites around the city, and collaborates with them on education and outreach events.

Driving participation and increasing access to the program have been a focus  “Community composting is definitely gaining traction!… There is a lot of momentum right now and I think the landscape will look very different in just a few years,” says Kilpatrick Kotner.

The program aims to add five more drop-off sites around Providence. “We’d like at least one per city council ward.”

The city has two additional collection sites, one at the Urban Greens Co-op, the other at Frey Gardens on Smith Hill. Both sites are independently operated.

Image: Zero Waste Providence

Roughly ten tons of food scraps are collected by Harvest Cycle each month. Between one and two tons are processed on-site—most of it at the Ring Street Garden in Federal Hill, but that site doesn’t have enough capacity for all of it. So the remainder is used by ReMix Organics, a commercial food waste hauler based in Providence. According to co-founder Nat Harris, the organic material is split 50/50 between commercial compost facilities and anaerobic digestion facilities. Anaerobic digestion converts the waste into RNG—renewable natural gas, or biogas.

Harvest Cycle is in the process of building a larger facility on a vacant lot in the West End of Providence. It will have the capacity to process all of the food waste collected in the program. The facility will use an “in-vessel” composter, a type which, Kilpatrick Kotner says, contains smells and operates quietly. The site will be lined with gardens, murals, and educational signage, and is estimated to be completed by this summer.

Fruits, vegetables, and grain-based products like bread, pasta, and rice make up the bulk of residential food waste. Compost facilities can only process biodegradable, compostable items so the food waste must be free of contamination before it’s dropped off. Plastic fruit stickers and ties, plasticized paper and cardboard, and other non-biodegradable items are listed in Harvest Cycle’s can/can’t compost guide.

But community composting programs see less contamination than larger ones. “When people are connected to the composter and the composting process, they put more attention into what is going into their bin,” says Kilpatrick Kotner.

Asked whether Harvest Cycle had plans to take the program to other towns in the state, she’s pragmatic:

“An essential component of community composting is that it’s place-based and hyper-local—meeting the specific needs of the community it’s in. So, we’re very focused on deepening our scope in Providence rather than going beyond it.”

“Education is a major barrier. Many people don’t know what compost is, why it’s important, or how to do it. Also, if you’ve been putting your food scraps in the trash for your entire life, doing something different will be a big adjustment. Habits are hard to break.”

Community composting programs are rooted in the idea of the “circular economy”: what comes out goes back in. Zero waste—or as close to zero as is practical. Kilpatrick Kotner makes the point: “We try not to use the term ‘waste’ whenever possible, because we think of food scraps as a resource rather than something to be discarded.”

Image: EPA

The community-driven model as a mostly closed system promises  many other benefits:

  • Local soil and environment:
    • Recycling organic matter locally enriches soils in gardens, parks, yards, and farms.
    • Keeping it local reduces greenhouse gas emissions both from landfills and from transportation over long distances.
    • Using compost locally improves water retention, reduces erosion, minimizes stormwater runoff, and aids in healing contaminated soils.
  • Local economies:
    • Local composting creates opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and keeps jobs and revenue within the community.
    • Building composting infrastructure offers opportunities for job training, education, and skill building.
  • Local communities:
    • Local composting programs serve as green spaces and educational hubs, promoting compost as a resource for soil health and growing food.
    • It helps to address food insecurity by improving access to nutrient-rich produce.
    • Community composting covers service gaps that can be tailored to individual community needs.
    • Collaborative programs encourage participation, resilience, and reconnect communities with the food system.

Community food waste programs in other cities have proven that the model works. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some programs operate as nonprofits, others as for-profit enterprises. Some are private-public partnerships between community organizations and the city, while others are managed as part of municipal waste collection.

Providence is carving out its own community model and Kilpatrick Kotner is positive about this collective approach:

“It’s much easier to pay for the construction of a few drop-off sites, or to host them on city property, than to institute a whole curbside collection program. I also think that having collection sites at places where community members already tend to gather (gardens, libraries, etc) is very powerful in terms of education and community-building.”

And there’s momentum at the state level: A new law banning food waste in Rhode Island’s K-12 schools went into effect last year. Pilot programs are underway to rescue edible food and divert food waste from the landfill. The reductions are dramatic and the schools program is getting attention—and funding. Students are learning by doing, developing proactive habits that they’ll carry forward with them.

Local communities are now joining that effort. Providence’s community food waste collection sites are putting down the roots for a system that serves all. It’ll be up to residents, local community organizations, businesses, and policymakers to decide how to grow it.

GET INVOLVED: To sign up to use a community food waste collection site, contact Harvest Cycle at; https://groundworkri.org/harvest-cycle-compost/

For food waste advocacy and to volunteer: https://www.zerowasteprovidence.com

Emlyn Addison is a writer, composer, and environmentalist. He writes about sustainability, climate technology, and human endeavor at Cookies and Robots. Addison grew up in South Africa and has been a Providence resident for 20 years.