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RIHA COLUMN: Turning Food into Energy

Turning Food into Energy

Dale A. Venturini, President & CEO, Rhode Island Hospitality Association

Dale A. Venturini, President & CEO, Rhode Island Hospitality Association

By Dale J. Venturini

Recycling is an incredibly important initiative in this day-and-age of being green, using fewer natural resources and minimizing our carbon footprint. We all agree that so many good things come from recycling our discarded paper, plastic, and glass, and there is still a long way to go.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycling in 2012. Of that, almost 87 million tons were recycled and composted. On average, Americans recycled or composted about one and one-half pounds of individual waste generation per person, per day.

While this is certainly great news, I think we can all agree that more needs to be done to help protect our limited natural resources and to aid in the enormous amounts of garbage occupying our landfills.
In the last legislative session, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed what was deemed a revolutionary bill requiring that any restaurant, hotel, hospital or school that generates at least 104 tons of organic waste materials per year will be required by law to recycle those scraps if that business is located within 15 miles of an organic recycling facility or an anaerobic digestion facility. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2016.

I agree that recycling food scraps is an excellent idea; so many of our members already recycle cooking oil as well as compost food scraps. And, while I think progress in this direction is certainly the way to go, I also caution that we need to make sure that we have the right infrastructure in place to actually fulfill the intent of this new law.

Unfortunately, we do not. There is only one large-scale food-scrap composting operation in the state, Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. The number of hotels, restaurants, schools and hospitals located 15 miles from this facility can be counted on one hand. And, there are no facilities that turn food into energy located in Rhode Island.

NEO Energy of New Hampshire has plans to build a 500-kilowatt plant at the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown, but as of this moment, there is no completion date known. This plant would use methane gas from the rotting food scraps to generate electricity while using the residual matter to create fertilizer. Again, the number of targeted facilities located within 15 miles of this proposed plant is also a small handful.

In addition to the lack of recycling facilities, there is also no existing transportation system in place to support moving the tons of food scraps that Rhode Island businesses generate annually. In the past, many Rhode Island restaurants had an agreement with local pig farms to pick up scraps to be used as feed and compost on their farms. Unfortunately, the farmers could not handle picking up the scraps on a regular basis or in a timely manner… thus, that initiative has fallen by the wayside.

You see, food scraps are a tricky thing. You cannot leave them in a kitchen or outside a property for very long, as they will invariably attract critters that are looking for a free meal. The RI Department of Health has strict regulations on how long food scraps/trash can be safely stored at businesses’ premises and those regulations make a lot of sense.

While I applaud the intent of this new food scrap recycling law, and I do agree that as an industry, we need to find a way to recycle more of our waste, I don’t believe that this law is enforceable in the timeframe that is laid out. We simply will not have the facilities necessary built, or the transportation system necessary to move the scraps in place in less than a year from now.

The passing of this law is well-intended; it can create a new industry in the state and add some badly-needed jobs. As we look to find new solutions to this issue, as an industry we need to do what we have always done best: come together as a community and work to find the best solution.

A veteran of more than 25 years in the hospitality industry, Venturini is considered by many to be the voice of the industry in the state of Rhode Island. She has been instrumental in improving the industry’s educational and training programs in the state, as well as enhancing the bottom line of the business she represents. Venturini splits her time between the office and the State House, a constant presence for her membership.

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