Waste Watchers

Last fall, city council agreed to pay $131,000 for the world’s most expensive Gore-Tex jacket. That jacket, essentially two tarps totalling 600 square metres, will cover your decomposing, half-finished beef teriyaki and broccoli stalks at the city’s landfill in Delta. Part of a six-month demonstration project by compost contractor Net Zero Waste, the Gore-Tex experiment will be a test of Vancouver’s next generation in decomposition. The question on council’s mind is: will a full-scale municipal composting system stink?

Marvin Hunt, the Surrey councillor and chairman of Metro Vancouver’s Waste Management Committee, says new technologies have brought the cost of municipal-scale composting in line with Metro Vancouver board’s target of $65 a tonne. “Obviously, we have to look at each component of the waste stream,” he says. Dealing with organic waste via composting seems a positive step-with waves of negative odour the unfortunate cost to the neighbourhood.

Composting is part of Vancouver city council’s Zero Waste Challenge-the extension of a goal set in 1995 to halve the amount of waste that went to landfill in 1990. Council has exceeded that goal; recycling now diverts 52 percent of Vancouver’s trash, which totals 3.2 million tonnes annually. That still leaves a substantial haul of organics: 17 percent of the waste we’re burying in the landfill just off Highway 99 (ever notice the stench as you drive by?) is blackened bananas, wilted salad, and rotten apples.

“We’re basically putting our food in plastic bags,” says Ellen Z. Harrison, outgoing director of the Waste Management Institute at Cornell University in New York state, “and leaving it for our children.” When such bags end up inside a mountain of trash, where there’s little oxygen, bacteria can’t do what they do best: make dirt. What breaks down naturally over weeks in your backyard takes hundreds of years to decompose when wrapped in plastic and buried.

What’s more, moving that 17 percent of organics to a proper composting site would extend the use of Vancouver’s landfill-a substantial bonus, given that nobody wants the next landfill to go in next door. The landfill in Delta, according to its own figures, has room for another 22 million tonnes. That’s 44 years’ worth of space. Remove the compostables and you add a decade to its life.

Despite optimism about the program, council is well aware of other composting enterprises that were shut down due to odour complaints. Enter the Gore-Tex tarpaulins. Inside an exterior shell of abrasion-resistant weatherproof fabric is a Gore-manufactured membrane designed to keep smells in while letting CO2 and other gases out. The city has agreed to run a small-scale test of the Gore system at the Delta landfill. Hunt hopes the results from the demos will be available this spring.

Can we compost without raising a stink? To answer that, we need look no further than the world’s largest Gore Cover System, in Everett, Washington. If there’s one place in North America that should smell, it’s here-a 10-acre compost heap called Cedar Grove. Started in the early ’90s, it’s run by a private company in charge of Seattle’s pay-per-use composting program, and it turns lawn trimmings and food waste into Supersoil-like products for gardeners. The place now handles as much organic waste each year as a full-scale facility in Vancouver would. 

“We’re standing in 30 or 40 thousand tonnes of compost,” says Jerry Bartlett, vice president of Cedar Grove, surrounded by farting trucks, groaning excavators, and mountains of rich dirt. Bartlett, hopping nimbly over muddy puddles, points to the end of a conveyor belt that delivers the material into 450-tonne rows of waste that are covered with Gore tarpaulins for six weeks. After that, they’re ready for two weeks out in the open to dry.

We stand between a couple of these open rows. Bartlett shakes his head. Looking down at the dark earth his facility has created out of kitchen goop clearly inspires him: he blurts out a flurry of praise for the muck towering around us. “You can see the steam coming off!” he exclaims.  “I mean, these piles are about 170 degrees , but you don’t have any odour. Open piles! Even between the piles!”

Ankle deep in the stuff, I become a believer. It is indeed possible to compost 160,000 tonnes a year without the reek of rotting eggs and moulding milk. Cedar Grove simply smells earthy.

So, while Vancouver waits for the results of its demos, you can believe Councillor Hunt when he says, “As soon as we confirm that these demonstrations are relatively odourless, I think we’ll be ready to go.” Your Chinese takeout is that much closer to compost heaven.