If you’re reading this article at home and are about to chuck the tea bag that’s been steeping in your mug into the garbage, stop. There’s now another option. Starting on Earth Day (April 22), the City of Vancouver begins Phase 1 of a comprehensive food scraps collection program that initially targets single-family residences.
About time, you say? That’s what Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer thought. After all, Vancouver has lagged behind other cities in Canada, like Halifax and Toronto, which have had food-collection initiatives since 1999 and 2002, respectively. “We’re quite significantly behind. That probably should have been a warning that it was going to be difficult,” she says during a phone chat.
What Reimer didn’t realize was that the holdup was due to the city’s large number of multifamily residential buildings (i.e., apartment complexes) that use private companies to dispose of their trash. In short, it’s a coordination nightmare. So, despite many administrations’ desire to get the program going, “nobody wanted to pay the price politically of not being able to do everybody [in the city] at once,” Reimer explains.
Ultimately, though, council felt that launching a phased approach was better than doing nothing at all, especially given Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Challenge, an initiative launched in 2006 whose goal is to divert 70 percent of solid waste from landfills by 2015. With about 35 percent of garbage being compostable food scraps (15,700 tonnes in 2008), the goal seemed pretty far off without some way of diverting those scraps from the dreaded landfill.
In Phase 1, those who live in single-family residences will be able to put tea bags, uncooked fruit and vegetable bits, eggshells, and coffee grounds and filters into their yard-trimmings cart, which will be picked up biweekly for processing by Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre. According to Bob McLennan, an engineer with the city’s Solid Waste Management division, FRSF will compost yard trimmings and food scraps together into various blends of soil that it will sell to local nurseries and the public. (He estimates that single-family residences account for 45 percent of total food-scraps waste.)
In Phase 2, scheduled for early 2011, “putrescible” waste—a sexy way of describing rapidly decomposable items like meat, fish, dairy, bread, and food-soiled paper—will be allowed in the yard trimmings bin. Because this is the smelliest stuff we throw away, it will be picked up weekly in order to avoid potential pest issues. At that point, regular garbage collection will be reduced to biweekly.
And finally, in Phase 3, multifamily residential buildings and the commercial sector will be gradually included, as it’s hoped that private companies will get onboard if the program proves successful. Meanwhile, Reimer recommends that impatient condo dwellers lobby their strata council to put pressure on their garbage collectors to start composting pronto. “There’s nothing to stop early adopters,” she says.
The larger benefits of all three phases are significant. Methane gases from rotting garbage will be substantially reduced, and nutrients will be fed back into the food system when food scraps are composted. The city will continue to encourage private composting and offer subsidized back-yard composters at a cost of $25, besides encouraging neighbourhood composting projects, thereby decreasing the number of trucks needed to pick up compostables.
The costs ($230,000 for Phase 1) will be minor considering the benefits, Reimer says. She adds that with Metro Vancouver considering the whopping purchase of a half-a-billion-dollar incinerator to deal with projected solid-waste increases, it also makes financial sense to compost.
Reimer feels that part of convincing Vancouverites who are reluctant to do their part in the program will be promoting the smart use of tax dollars: “It’s just figuring out how to communicate it [the program] to people to make them feel like they’re part of an effort to make better use of municipal dollars.” Besides, there really is no downside to composting, she argues: “There’s nothing about this that doesn’t make sense except that this is new.”
Residents will have to make the adjustment of setting food scraps aside before tossing them in with their yard trimmings. As an avid back-yard composter, Reimer says there are a variety of strategies for temporarily storing scraps indoors, such as using an ice-cream pail with a sprinkling of baking soda to absorb odours, or keeping a container in the freezer until compostables are taken outside.
According to Reimer, even hard-core back-yard composters will benefit from curbside collection. Last winter when the weather was particularly harsh, Reimer’s compost froze and it became extremely difficult to use it. “I would have loved the option to put it [organic matter] in the food scraps container,” she says. And in Phase 2, she’ll be able to include items that she was reluctant to put in her back yard out of concern about pests.
As for the more distant future, Reimer envisions perhaps even old cotton T-shirts and those holey socks at the bottom of the laundry hamper finding a home in the composting cart—although those really might create an odour issue!