City of Vancouver aids the planet by collecting food scraps

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      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!




      Apr 22, 2010 at 9:04am

      yes. About time. 80% of non-recyclable solid waste is organic matter. The savings alone from not driving the garbage up to Cache Creek will be considerable.

      ken clint

      Apr 22, 2010 at 9:08am

      when are you going to wake up people and realize most of what you recycle ends up in a landfill anyways...geez...take a look at the history of it all...and when is this provinces capitol going to stop dumping raw sewage into the ocean id like to know??? we should be so proud


      Apr 22, 2010 at 9:18am

      Bring it to North Van asap!


      Apr 22, 2010 at 9:57am

      They should use the compost collected to produce Methane and power Vancouver buses or other city vehicles with it. Gasoline engines can be adapted to run on methane. (Raw sewage can also produce methane).

      The process would still leave left over material that can be used as a fertilizer.


      Apr 22, 2010 at 9:58am

      Wow, this has been done for many years in European countries. Grey bin for garbage, green bin for waste that can be composted. Nothing new, just some parts of Canada catching up. Great initiative.

      d s

      Apr 22, 2010 at 3:48pm


      peter Kratoska

      Apr 22, 2010 at 5:07pm

      been composting for many years, and even though were a family of 4 we have much less garbage then the neighbours that don't compost. So it's about time.

      Acteon has a point on the methane. BUt I think we should go a step further, all the pine beetle damaged trees in BC (an area the size of the UK or 15 milllion hectares) are slowly dying and giving off co2. When my father was growing up in WWII Czechoslovakia the Germans ran cars on wood gas. We can do this with the dying forests. You cook (pyrolize) the wood - it gives off wood gas which can be used to genearate electricity. The leftover charcoal can be used as biochar to fertilze agricultural soil and sequester the carbon for centuries. Setting up some kind of industry for burning the wood and generating electricity would solve several problems - declining forest industry, the growing need for clean energy which would be not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, and it would improve agricultural soil.

      (the same can be done for agricultural waste) I believe the city of Ottawa is bulding
      such a plant for generating energy from garbage.

      One way to help fund it is by money collected from the carbon tax.


      Apr 22, 2010 at 6:51pm

      Italy has been doing this for years, and yes, for apartments too, including meat, eggs, fish!!!!!!! And they even have large vats for cooking oils. It is about time we started with some initiatives. Apartments should be included right from the start. Our problem is that we have contracted out our garbage disposal to so many different companies.