Green box envy

Vancouver residents seek a curbside compostable-waste collection service.

Credit: Nik West

On a trip to Toronto this past winter I found myself complaining about the cold and wiping my dripping nose. As I went to dispose of my tissue, my friend snatched my hand and chastised me for not putting it in the green box. The green box? I was quickly schooled – a green box is like a blue box, but for food and other organic recycling (like my used Kleenex). Imagine the shame I carried on behalf of Vancouver when my friend discovered that my oft-bragged-about city did not have a similar curbside compostable-waste collection service.

Vancouver is one of the last of Canada’s major cities to provide its residents organic food waste removal and recycling. It is five years behind Toronto, eight years behind Edmonton, and almost ten years behind Halifax. This means that an estimated 200,000 tonnes of food waste continue to end up in landfills each year instead of being converted into useful soil. Collecting and treating the city’s organic food waste could reduce garbage by 13 to 25 per cent (depending on the restrictions imposed).

Links in Canada:
Halifax Recycling Program
Toronto Recycling Program
Edmonton Recycling Program
Composting Council of Canada

The move toward recycling organic waste became more urgent last January when the Metro Vancouver board voted to abandon its plans to find a replacement for the Cache Creek Landfill, which is expected to reach capacity in 2010. With the pressure on, Metro Vancouver can’t ignore the important role composting will play in future solutions. And yet, Metro’s Waste Management Committee seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back. In late 2007 it announced plans for a composting demonstration project at the Vancouver Landfill in Delta, but that project was scrapped before trials with food waste were concluded. Metro relocated the demonstration project to its Lang­ley wastewater treatment plant, and those trials were concluded in March.

With Metro Vancouver issuing a “Zero Waste Challenge,” the need for organic recycling is now more urgent than ever. So, why is Vancouver still stuck in the dark ages of waste removal?

Helen Spiegleman, a waste reduction activist and coordinator of Zero Waste Vancouver, blames our prim ways. “Our garbage system was created in the Victorian era,” she says. “It hasn’t really changed since then. It’s very prudish. The reality is that garbage stinks.” Spiegleman believes that we’ve grown accustomed to the convenience of sealing smelly trash in big plastic bags and letting someone else deal with the mess.

Growth from garbage

Check out CBC TV environment reporter Lisa Johnson’s story on what Metro Vancouver is doing to make citywide composting a reality.

But not everyone is afraid of getting their hands dirty; Metro Vancouver’s backyard compost program is well subscribed. Municipalities have given out 120,000 composters in the past ten years. Wilbert Yang of Metro Vancouver’s Policy and Planning Department believes this is a conservative number, as it does not take into account the units sold through retailers. According to Yang, these backyard systems divert about 30,000 tonnes of waste from the landfill each year. Not bad, but it’s only a fraction of what is possible.

So what’s stopping a city that led the way in dry recycling back in the 1970s? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s the big stink. “The main stumbling block is the smell,” says Brock Macdonald, executive director of the Recycling Council of B.C. He explains that you don’t just need land for a compost site; you need space around the land, and there is no space between communities in Metro Vancouver. “There is no place where the smell wouldn’t bother residents,” Macdonald adds.

Odour has been a challenge for many municipalities that offer food-waste collection and composting. It was the demise of a program in Squamish. Carney’s Waste Systems embarked on a commercial-food-waste collection program in 2004. The company put its enclosed anaerobic compost vessels in an area of Squamish that was, at the time, fairly industrial. Three years later, there was a Home Depot and a taxi stand within 100 metres. The facility’s new neighbours didn’t appreciate the aroma. They complained to city council and Carney’s was shut down. The facility is now in the process of being moved to the Callahan Valley in Whistler, where, as Owen Carney, the company founder, explains, “it’s miles from anyone.”

Site location is only part of the equation in creating a sustainable composting program. According to Ken Carrusca, senior engineer with the Policy and Planning Department of Metro Vancouver, there are three additional key elements; collection, processing technology, and end use of compost. As part of his work, he toured numerous facilities and saw, firsthand, the faults in their systems.

In Southern Ontario, he visited an organic processing plant in Guelph – considered trailblazing when it was built in 1996. The plant has since been shut down due to odour issues and the disinclination to repair major structural problems caused by corrosive off-gases.


Carrusca also visited facilities servicing Metro Toronto (home to the green box program of my envy). These sites were operating at partial capacity due, in part, to an inability to control odour issues. A facility in Newmarket was only able to process one-third of its anticipated volume. This resulted in Metro Toronto having to ship the remaining compost feedstock to Quebec.

Not all municipal food-waste recycling programs are faltering. Nova Scotia has several stellar systems, as do Quebec and Alberta. In British Columbia, Nanaimo and Ladysmith both have impressive food-waste collection and processing services. Mary Hulti, human resources manager for Ladysmith, reports that after a year that city’s food-waste collection program now diverts close to 40 per cent of its garbage to the compost. A substantial level of participation was required to achieve that result. Hulti believes it was the city’s preparation that helped. “We did an extensive awareness program and truly think this was the key to the success of the program.” The awareness campaign was rolled out over three months.

Critics feel that Vancouver is moving too slowly at a time when eco-density is being
promoted hand in hand with a “Zero Waste Challenge.” Spiegleman is tired of the
endless research and dragging of heels. “Vancouver is being overly cautious,” she bluntly states over the phone.

International Recycling Programs:
US Municipal Solid Waste
US Composting Council
European Compost Network

“We are being cautious,” Carrusca agrees, but he feels it is necessary to ensure that
Metro Vancouver doesn’t hastily jump into a program it can’t sustain.

Despite all this prudence, there is some action. Several private companies have heard the distress call and would be more than willing to come to the rescue. Marvin Hunt, Metro Vancouver’s waste management committee chair, confirms that the committee is looking to the private sector for options. Impact Renewable Energy Corp. of Maple Ridge is just one of the companies that could be part of the solution. It has a small in-vessel anaerobic program where compostable waste is kept in an airtight container and agitated for two weeks before
it becomes compost soil. It’s the same technology Carney’s used in Squamish.

Another company eager to prove its capabilities is Westcoast Instant Lawns, near the Boundary Bay Airport. Operations manager Pat Martin believes by the end of year it can double its current capacity of 100,000 wet tonnes of compost processed annually by taking in some of Metro Vancouver’s organic waste. But first the company will have to assure the committee that past odour issues are over. Martin is confident that a change in the feedstock (namely the removal of chicken manure) and a new plan to cover the compost piles will contain the smell that drove neighbours to file complaints.

The solution might not be found just in the private sector. Metro Vancouver concluded its Langley demonstration project in March. That project used the open-air Gore-cover system, in which waste is placed in long piles and a Gore-tex cover (yes, the same material used in outdoor gear) is placed over top. The steam and moisture created by the compost are kept inside the tarp, optimizing the breakdown of the food. Air is forced through the piles when a sensor indicates that less than optimal levels have been reached.

Its proponents claim the Gore-cover system contains odour. They also say it has proven ways of preventing pathogens and leachate from entering the environment. There are successful projects around the world that can back up these claims. However, Metro Vancouver isn’t convinced yet.

If a Gore-cover system does finally get the nod from Metro Vancouver, it has the potential to be ramped up quickly and service Metro Vancouver’s composting needs. The operator of the pilot project in Langley, Mateo Ocejo of Net Zero Waste, says that the system has been proven in 170 other markets, including a large program in Everett, Washington. The Cedar Grove Compost in Everett handles approximately 150,000 tonnes of yard and food waste a year and, according to Ocejo, “smells like the forest floor.” It’s a model facility that the Metro Vancouver Waste Committee has visited. And yet, it is not enough to convince the committee that Metro Vancouver can proceed immediately. “Vancouver is being ultra-cautious, ultra conservative,” Ocejo says of the slow rollout plan – a popular sentiment.

It may look like a residential curbside collection of food waste is imminent, but before Metro Vancouver residents start anticipating a green box on their doorstep, there are a few other factors that need to be worked out.

Good compost is all about good feedstock. If food waste is contaminated, the end compost will be substandard, and may even end up in the very landfill it was diverted from. Ocejo identifies the biggest culprit in contamination: “Plastic is the enemy of composting.” The failed Guelph program is testament; it allowed food waste to be put at curbside in plastic bags, and not only did that add a step at the sorting station, but plastic would get stuck in the machinery, clogging the system beyond repair.

The most successful collection processes involve strict regulations at the startup, paired with an aggressive public education program. And, because compost is stinky, regular collection is essential. Ocejo recommends a collection system that rotates dry recycling and trash collection every other week with organics (or wet trash) being gathered weekly.

In a 2004 audit of Metro Vancouver’s garbage (where random trucks were inspected) 13 per cent was found to be food waste. Carrusca estimates that 70 per cent of the population would participate in a green box-style program, and 70 per cent of the food collected would be uncontaminated. If this is correct, that would amount to Metro Vancouver composting 98,000 tonnes of food waste a year. The Vancouver Landfill currently has the capacity to accommodate this volume of compost.

Metro Vancouver has budgeted $40 million for developing a full organic-waste composting program and the purchase of any necessary land. Ocejo estimates that a Gore-cover system for 98,000 tonnes would cost between $20 million and $40 million. In addition, private companies, like Westcoast Instant Lawns, already have systems in place and, when it comes to selling the compost soil (usually to large-scale landscapers), Martin says “we can’t keep up with demand right now.”

So they have the money, the space, the collection infrastructure, suppliers and buyers. When do I get my green box?

Spiegleman believes the time is now to get a residential collection program into action. “Folks like Ken [Carrusca] and those responsible for the system, have to let go of the fear that it won’t work.” For Macdonald, the need for a food recycling program is elementary. “If you look at the waste audit breakdown, the largest single chunk is organic waste, and of the organic waste, food is the biggest chunk. So, if you want to do one thing that will significantly reduce what’s going into the landfill, that’s it.”

Is there reason to be optimistic about a shiny trucking hauling off my weekly slop? Hunt believes so. “Having a program in place by the end of 2008 is a reasonable expectation,” he claims, but there’s a caveat to that. Metro Vancouver provides the option, but each municipality is autonomous. Peter Ladner, a Vancouver councillor and member of Metro Vancouver’s Waste Committee, is confident that the city of Vancouver will move forward with a program if the demonstration brings positive results. He adds, “Of course, the council will have to vote on it.”

It will be up to the politicians to turn my green box envy into green box pride.