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  • Whatever happened to composting?


    Seven years on, Victoria area kitchen scraps are still taking a long, costly journey to compost facilities.

     

    CHUCK THAT APPLE CORE into the kitchen container designated for organics, take the can outside and tip it into the green bin in time for garbage pickup, feeling satisfied knowing your household food waste is being turned into compost that will help grow more fruit and veggies.

    The routine is familiar to most Greater Victoria residents who, after 2015 when the Capital Regional District banned kitchen scraps from Hartland Road Landfill, slowly came to see the benefits of separating organic waste.

     

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    However, in Greater Victoria, that apple core is starting a long, carbon-emissions-full journey. While efforts have been made to bring kitchen scrap processing closer to home, they appear to be years away from fruition.

    The apple core will first travel to Hartland Road where it is tipped on to a loading station, then trucked up-Island to Fisher Road Recycling at Cobble Hill. While most kitchen scraps are composted on site, when the Fisher Road facility reaches capacity, the remainder is put on a barge to the mainland and trucked to a composting facility in Cache Creek in northern BC.

    Russ Smith, CRD senior manager of environmental resource management, agrees it is not ideal to have Greater Victoria’s kitchen scraps travelling around the province, but it’s certainly preferable to scraps ending up in the landfill and more realistic than expecting all residents to do their own backyard composting.

    “It’s the pragmatic middle ground that is better than landfilling, but not as good as the ideal of backyard composting with everyone doing their own—and, of course, you have a lot of multi-family condo dwellers where they don’t have those opportunities,” Smith said.

    In 2013, there was an ill-fated attempt at local processing when the CRD contracted Foundation Organics to deal with kitchen scraps on a Central Saanich farm. It was forced to pull the operating licence in less than a year after neighbours complained about the smell. Since then progress has crawled along at a snail’s pace.

    It seems to have taken five years to make the next move towards local processing. In 2018, the CRD invited expressions of interest from proponents wanting to establish a processing facility “within or in close proximity to the Capital Region.” A facility could be built either on two hectares of cleared space at Hartland or on other sites, says the request for initial bids

    The current system of processing outside the region “requires extensive transportation and is inconsistent with the Region’s long-term objective of managing the kitchen scraps locally to the extent possible,” it says.

    More than a dozen responses were received, but the shortlist has not yet been compiled. Meanwhile, a new request for proposals for hauling and processing kitchen scraps closes this month with the successful bidder holding the contract until March 2025.

    That allows the successful bidder on the main contract time to construct a new facility, said Smith, who is expecting a staff report to go to the CRD board next spring. “Even if we get very clear direction in the spring of 2021, by the time the procurement finishes and construction starts you are certainly looking into 2023 and likely into 2024,” he said.

    A stumbling block is that no decision has yet been made by the CRD board on whether to opt for composting or the more expensive choice of building a biogas plant at Hartland. Biogas is produced when organic matter biodegrades without oxygen. The gas can then be filtered and, if done on a large scale, can be used to generate electricity or refined and fed into the gas grid.

    The cost of building a biogas plant at Hartland was estimated by CRD staff at between $25- and $40-million, compared to $2- to $8-million for composting. The capital cost could drop to zero if composting was done at a private site owned by one of the bidders.

    In addition to deciding what kind of technology should be used for kitchen scraps, there’s also the problem of getting municipalities to commit to sending their scraps to a new facility as operators need to know they would receive sufficient material

    Currently the CRD sends about 12,000 tonnes a year to Cobble Hill, but Victoria and Saanich have separate contracts with Fisher Road Recycling.

    Victoria collected about 2,000 tonnes of food scraps through its green bin program in 2019 and is expecting to collect more this year because of 25 zero waste stations installed around the downtown core and in City parks.

    City staff “continue to work closely with CRD staff on regional solid waste management initiatives,” said an emailed statement from the city.

    Saanich is the only local municipality to accept yard trimmings in the organics cart and collects between 8,000 and 9,000 tonnes annually. About 30 percent of that is food waste and the mix with garden waste provides the ideal carbon and nitrogen mix to make top-grade compost, said Jason Adams, Saanich operations supervisor.

    Adams, who has an extensive background in recycling, wants to see the CRD get on with a decision. “They just need to build it and get on with it and the tonnage will follow,” said Adams, who would like to see a model based on economics, rather than subsidies, and is hoping the CRD avoids an “over-engineered” system.

    One advantage of the many delays has been that the technology of composting has evolved over recent years, Adams said.

    Technology is a cause close to the heart of Peter Brown, a member of Malahat Organics, a consortium which made a bid to the CRD in 2018 proposing a rotary composter, meaning the material is contained inside a large drum—a method that controls odours and dust.

    “You put the kitchen scraps in one end and this thing very, very slowly rotates and it comes out the other end about seven days later and you have got beautiful compost. We’ve got an absolutely crackerjack proposal for the CRD and it would cost them nothing,” said Brown, who is puzzled by the delays.

     

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    Example of a large rotary composter used to create compost from kitchen scraps

     

    The proposal envisages the facility being set up on Malahat Nation land, which is zoned light industrial.

    The CRD would pay a tipping price, which would be less than they are currently paying and the operators would require a guaranteed amount of tonnage each year. At the end of the contract, the facility would be transferred to the region at no cost.

    Hartland currently accepts kitchen scraps at $120 per tonne, but it costs the CRD about $145 a tonne for the composting.

    It is frustrating that it has taken so long to consider the proposals and, in the meantime, between the discrepancy in costs and trucking some of the scraps off-Island it is costing the region money, Brown said.

    “Isn’t it crazy?…It’s our money that’s going out into the wind and, in the last few years since we submitted our proposal, you could have had the plant operating right here,” he said.

    Brown fears that CRD staff are slanting recommendations towards biogas rather than composting even though a biogas plant is expensive and will take up a large chunk of land at Hartland.

    “Compost is a wonderful thing if it’s done properly like with these rotary composters that give you the very best quality compost. It’s valuable, not something to be sent away,” he said.

    Highland councillors Gord and Ann Baird also fear that there is a tilt towards biogas in staff reports and last year, in separate presentations to a CRD committee, both questioned why the Hartland site is apparently already being prepared for biogas.

    “The pathway towards more biogas production goes contrary to eliminating hydrocarbons as a fuel source as laid out in IPCC reports and the Climate Emergency declarations,” said Gord Baird, who is running for the BC Green Party in Langford-Juan de Fuca.

    There is no social licence for the old methods of composting, with all its shortcomings, but there is a social licence for new methods with no odour, no dust and no access to vermin, said Baird, who calculated that the value of finished compost, sold at $50 a tonne, would far exceed the value of biogas produced by anaerobic digestion.

    Jutta Gutberlet, University of Victoria professor in the Department of Geography, agrees that compost is a valuable resource and believes the ideal solution would be decentralized composting centres, which would eliminate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

    “This could relatively easily be done with community gardens,” said Gutberlet, a director of the Community-based Research Laboratory.More space is being provided around Victoria for community gardens and the compost could be used on site, Gutberlet said.

    “They would not just produce organic composts, but they could become centres where people meet—centres of community, which is something we also need in our neighbourhoods,” she said.

    Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith


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