Rhode Island: It's All in Our Backyard

Turning our food waste into soil

December 16, 2015 by cgrosch

Leo Pollock and Nat Harris, the committed entrepreneurs behind The Compost Plant, are changing the way we think about our food waste. Rhode Island’s Central Landfill will be full in 20 years, and one-third of what is going to the landfill is compostable.

“We need to start thinking differently about trash and waste – if it has a higher value than burying it in the ground,” says Leo, who previously worked as the education/program director for the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence. “I basically taught people how to grow food in the city.” They were constantly struggling to find large volumes of high quality compost for their 40 gardens. “It got me thinking ‘what if this is a business opportunity and what would it look like?’ ”

IMG_0793Nat came to the business from the ‘waste to energy’ perspective. He founded Newport Biodiesel 10 years ago in his basement, looking at a waste product that was being thrown away and converting it into biodiesel. “I look at food scraps in the same way as vegetable oil. Instead of throwing it away and burying it in the landfill, let’s compost it, get it back in the soil to grow more food.”

The two joined forces in mid-2013 and by October had incorporated their venture as an L3C – limited liability, low-profit – a rather new corporate structure for a business with an intentional social and environmental mission but also a revenue model. They raised private investment capital to get started with first one, then a second customized truck. In early 2014, they started offering commercial food waste collection.

“The shift is happening pretty rapidly no one was talking about this five years ago.”

They had a few core businesses – like Julians and Seven Stars – “that said really early ‘yeah, we’re interested in this’.” Initially, they were picking up thirty 48-gallon bins a week; now it’s almost fifty a day. In a year and a half, their customer base has tripled, mainly through word of mouth.

In addition to dozens of small restaurants – mainly in Providence, the East Bay, and Aquidneck Island – their client list has expanded to institutional food service customers: Roger Williams, Salve Regina, and Brown universities; private schools like St. George’s, Portsmouth Abbey, Moses Brown, Providence Country Day. They have a contract with the full-service restaurants at Providence Place Mall, as well as major corporate accounts like MetLife and Fidelity.

And, as of January 1, they will be collecting food scraps from Rhode Island Hospital, Women and Infants, and Miriam. Admittedly, new state legislation that requires all commercial food producers that generate more than two tons of food scraps per week to compost their waste has had an impact on getting the hospitals on board.

But the law would apply only to businesses within 15 miles of a commercial composting facility, of which there is currently only one in the state – Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. This is where The Compost Plant delivers their food waste, and in turn, sells and delivers the Earth Care compost on the other end.

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So it will not initially impact many institutions. But if Leo and Nat have their way, this too will change. The partners worked last year with URI’s School of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering to develop a cost-effective system for aerating the mixed piles of food scraps and yard waste that together break down into compost. While huge piles of waste and scraps can produce compost in about a year, their method – which eliminates the need to manually turn the piles – can produce stable, viable compost in far less space and half the time.

If they receive the Small Business Innovation Research Grant they’ve applied for, they plan on having a pilot going by spring 2016, with a fully-operable system up and running by mid-2017. The long-term goal is to have a model that is replicable at satellite processing sites throughout the state.

The two approached Warren town officials several months ago after researching possible locations for their pilot project. They now have a letter of commitment from the Town of Warren for their proposal – with a potential site for the pilot project at the town’s existing leaf and yard waste facility.

“At its heart, our business goal is to turn food waste back into soil to support local food production by home gardeners, community gardeners, and small-scale farms,” says Leo. “We close the loop in the system.”