VANCOUVER — Bright red peppers, scooped-out watermelon halves and bunches of red grapes lie scattered on the warehouse floor at Richmond’s Harvest Power, next to a mound of grain, a few pieces of lumber and a pile of wilted lettuce.
In the past, the whole lot would have been left to rot in a landfill, spewing methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere while it decayed.
But these days, everybody seems to be fighting for the scraps, knowing there’s money to be made by using the potential energy of carrot tops, tea bags and leftover spaghetti for compost or to heat homes or produce electricity.
And Metro Vancouver is encouraging the trend in hopes of diverting 200,000 tonnes of organics from garbage dumps every year. By 2015, apples cores, chicken bones, bread crusts, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, paper towels, pizza boxes and a lot more will be banned from the region’s two landfills, as Metro aims to boost recycling and diversion rates from 55 per cent today to 70 per cent by 2015.
“It’s all about looking at these materials as resources rather than waste,” said Paul Henderson, manager of Metro Vancouver’s solid waste division.
Dozens of companies, as well as some municipalities, are lining up for the challenge, paving the way for a future where composters and bio-fuel digesters will be as common as bottle and recycling depots.
At Harvest Power, a compost facility in Richmond, some of Metro’s organic kitchen scraps are already turned into rich, dark compost, while the company is building a 30,000-tonne anaerobic bio-digester. The new plant, which won’t use oxygen, will break down “wetter and higher calorie” foods like pastas, meats and grease — mostly from multi-family buildings, restaurants and commercial facilities — to create methane, which will be captured and used to produce enough electricity for 1,000 homes.In Surrey, a bio-fuel plant in Port Kells will recover the energy from the city’s organics and yard waste to fuel its garbage trucks, while Delta’s organics are handled by Cascade Renewable Carbon. At the Annacis Island sewage treatment plant, energy from biosolids — decomposed sewage — is also used to generate electricity.
“It’s definitely going to be a growing industry,” said Steve Aujla, Harvest’s regional business development manager. “We’re going to need more infrastructure over the next couple of years for sure.”
But the first step is educating residents and businesses to toss scraps in the green bin instead of the garbage pail.
A garbage study last year found discarded food accounts for the largest percentage of the region’s residential trash, with 39 per cent of organics in landfills coming from single-family homes and 32 per cent from apartments and other multi-family homes.
Single-family residents are already on board, with 16 of Metro’s 21 municipalities expected to collect organics from the curbsides by the end of next month.
The concept is simple: Residents can put organics in a green bin with their yard waste, which will be picked up weekly from the curb and taken to transfer stations. The organic material is weighed and a tipping fee of $63 a tonne is charged, significantly less than the $107 a tonne charged for garbage.
“If we can make it convenient, people generally want to do the right thing,” said Metro Vancouver chairman Greg Moore, who is mayor of Port Coquitlam. “Composting has been around forever; we’re just doing it on a larger scale.”
South Surrey resident Janice Zeilstra, 61, never realized how much garbage she was throwing away, until she joined 1,000 others in a city pilot project in 2010.
“At first you really had to stop and think ‘what bin does this go in?’” Zeilstra said. “I don’t even have to think any more.”
Zeilstra has a small container under her kitchen sink, where she keeps the scraps before they are taken out to the green bin. The program was difficult at first, she said, but eventually her husband, two sons, daughter and 90-year-old mother caught on. Now, she rarely fills her trash can.
“I was quite amazed when we first started (composting) how little garbage actually went to the garbage can,” Zeilstra said. “It was an eye-opener. It made me think of how much we put in the landfill because it was everything.
“Now I’m much more diligent about remembering my recyclable bags when I go grocery shopping. And I always have a bag for the Salvation Army or Big Brothers with clothes or knick-knacks. I never throw them in a garbage can; it’s always recycled to another place.”
In Surrey, residents are given three types of bins: one for recycling, one for garbage and one for green waste like lawn clippings and kitchen scraps.
Rob Costanzo, Surrey deputy operations manager of engineering, said when the pilot program first started, the city was inundated with calls from residents asking for help. But by the end of it, the participants had cut their kitchen waste by half.
“We were quite surprised because people are entrenched in their habits,” he said. “Once they get the hang of it, it’s not much of an issue.”But the toughest work is yet to come: educating residents of multi-family buildings, as well as workers in restaurants and supermarkets, to separate food waste from garbage.
Metro Vancouver plans to launch a major campaign next year, acknowledging that it’s often more difficult in multi-family buildings because of a lack of space and accountability. With one main collection point, there is always a chance residents will toss everything into one bin — and no way of knowing who did it.
“It’s a tough nut to crack on the basis there’s a contamination issue,” Costanzo said. “The garbage is all taken to a central location, so good luck finding the culprit.”
Similar problems occur at commercial facilities. At Harvest Power, Aujla gapes as a commercial load is dumped: In the mounting pile are bloated garbage bags, plastic clamshell strawberry containers and glass bottles. The load came from a new commercial client that hasn’t quite figured out how to sort its waste.
“We’ll have to manually go through this load,” said Aujla, Harvest’s regional business development manager. “There’s some good stuff in here so we don’t want to have to reload all of this and send it to the landfill.
“When you’re talking multi-family, this is what you’re going to see. There’s no accountability.”
But Moore insists the system can work. In Port Coquitlam, which has one of the highest rates for organics collection in Metro Vancouver, city officials work with strata councils in multi-family residences to provide information and examine the layout and design of the buildings to decide where collection bins should go.
And although each municipality will develop its own organics collection system, all the scraps are destined for the same end: as compost, or as energy.
At Harvest’s composting plant, the kitchen scraps are dumped into piles outside, separated into batches and then mixed together in a secret company “recipe” and left for eight to 12 weeks behind a concrete wall. Oxygen is pumped in through rows of perforated pipes beneath the piles — this dries the scraps and reduces the smell, while preventing the production of methane that would ultimately be spewed into the air.
Loaders then haul the compost to the “curing area” where a screening machine filters out the fine soil and spits out the “overs” — compost that still has twigs and branches in it. Such leftovers are returned to a pile for more composting.The final products come in many forms: a pure compost high in nutrients, a 75-per-cent soil mixed with 25-per-cent river sand for landscapers, and a turf blend or 50/50 mix for gardeners.
“Whatever comes into our facility has to go out as a high form of compost,” Aujla said. “It’s environmentally sustainable. In our industry we call it ‘closing the loop.’
“It’s an endless outreach effort in continuing to remind residents about what’s allowed. The cleaner we can get them to source at the house, the less has to be residuals at the landfill.”
Harvest, which collects revenue through the tipping fees as well as from the sale of compost, hopes to team up with Metro’s northeast municipalities to build composting sites throughout the region.
Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver continues to work with other companies and municipalities to encourage more capacity for organics, noting that any new facilities will have to be licensed. Metro is also considering disposal bans or “polluter pays” composting fees to ensure odours are kept in check as a proliferation of facilities begin operation.
Henderson said Metro is studying organics programs around the world to determine what works and what doesn’t. He noted Ontario struggled with its program because it tried to do too much, too quickly.
Halifax, by contrast, is making great progress in organics collections in high-use public places. He said it’s possible the Halifax model could be used in Vancouver in high-traffic areas such as along the Stanley Park seawall.
Surrey’s Costanzo expects most people will adapt fairly easily to the changes once they’re in place.
“My feeling is it’ll be much faster now than it ever has been in the past. Each time we introduce waste diversion at the curb, there has been a little bit of resistance,” he said. “But in the last five to six years there has been an increased demand by the public that we do more … most people (believe) that it’s an important thing to do to protect the environment.”