Susan Anderson/the Gauntlet


How to divert organic waste from landfills back to the earth

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This week’s feature is the third in a four-part series on food security. The first part looked at a Canadian perspective, the second looked at organic farms in New Orleans. This week’s is about the benefit of composting food waste. Stay tuned for how to reduce inorganic food waste next week.

Have you ever thought about what happens to food you throw in the garbage? What happens when the food gets to a landfill? Canadians waste billions of dollars a year in edible food. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 per cent of food in the United States gets thrown out — this percentage is comparable for Canada. Although reducing food waste is another topic entirely, Canadians and Calgarians specifically need to think about what to do with the food that will be thrown out. 

Everything that goes into a landfill is meant to stay in the landfill for as long as human engineering can contain it. Once thrown into the garbage, organic matter and minerals in food will never leave. However, the City of Calgary estimates that 80 per cent of what ends up in a landfill could have been diverted. They also estimate that over half of household garbage is compostable food and yard waste. 

Food and yard waste does not break down into a useful product because there isn’t any oxygen in a landfill. The organic matter and minerals will never be used to grow another plant. 

In the landfill, food and yard waste breaks down very slowly — if at all — in anaerobic conditions and releases methane. Landfills have ways of collecting methane, yet some escapes into the atmosphere. 

Food and yard waste adds a lot of water to the landfill. The water gets contaminated by the rest of the garbage in the landfill creating leachate — a toxic and poisonous substance. Leachate needs to be contained so that it doesn’t contaminate groundwater, yet all liners will leak — if not today, then sometime in the future.

However, there is a reasonable solution to the problem of filling landfills with organic waste: composting. 

Composting is a worthwhile activity because it improves food security by completing nature’s nutrient cycle and doesn’t create more toxins in landfills. The nutrients in the food are essentially lost when they are put in a landfill. Composting returns organic matter and minerals to the soil. When these products are composted, they create a beneficial fertilizer. 

Suzanne Lewis writes in Composting for Canada that finished compost — also called humus — has all the macro and micronutrients that plants need. Gardeners and farmers colloquially refer to it as black gold. 

So how can we compost? Different ways to compost range from small-scale backyard composting to registered facilities, and methods include aerobic, anaerobic and worm composting. Not all composting requires worms — bacteria and other microorganisms can effectively break down organic matter. 

The City of Calgary has been running a pilot composting program — a green cart program — in the communities of Abbeydale, Brentwood, Cougar Ridge and Southwood.

The program has been running for about a year and, in April, the managers of the pilot project will present the findings of the program to City Council. City Council will then vote whether a citywide composting program should be implemented.

Lindsay Lofthouse is a waste diversions specialist at the City of Calgary and she reports that the pilot program is going very well.

“Residents are finding it very easy and convenient to use,” says Lofthouse. The pilot communities have seen a 40 per cent reduction in the amount of waste going into their black carts, the contents of which go to the landfill. 

“Pilot residents can reduce garbage significantly,” says Lofthouse. “They love seeing less garbage going out.” The managers of the pilot program are currently studying how much organic waste gets put into the green carts, as compared to how much still goes into black carts.

At first, some residents were hesitant about the program, and they didn’t understand why organic waste shouldn’t go in the landfill. 

“A lot of residents in pilot and non-pilot communities believe that it’s OK to put food and yard waste in the landfill because they think it breaks down and it’s not harmful, but in fact there is methane and carbon dioxide released when they slowly break down over time,” says Lofthouse. 

Lofthouse says that one of the challenges of the program was educating residents on why the program is necessary, including what are the benefits of composting and what are the harmful effects from throwing food waste in the landfill. Educators went out in the communities to spread the message, and as the pilot continued, the residents understood more and more about the purpose of the pilot and why it’s a good idea. Overall, residents are seeing a real environmental benefit because the compost can be put back into the earth.

If this program becomes citywide, a new facility would have to be built to handle the volume of organic waste that would be collected from Calgary residents. 

This new facility might seem like unnecessary spending of taxpayers’ money, but landfills cost a lot to build and operate too and they are quickly filling up. The City of Calgary reports that residents in and around Calgary don’t want a new landfill built near them, and many landfill development permits are denied. Existing landfills shouldn’t be full of products that could have been turned into something else.

Residents were surveyed three times over the course of the program. Currently, 91 per cent of pilot-community residents support the pilot program becoming citywide, which Lofthouse says is very strong support. Additionally, 89 per cent of residents are satisfied with the pilot program. Lofthouse also says that a lot of residents may not have supported it at the beginning but they have changed their mind and would now advocate it going forward. 

University of Calgary students may have noticed the compost bins in MacEwan Student Centre. Scott Weir, Students’ Union vice-president operations and finance, says the SU tried doing their own composting, but they would have needed many massive tanks, which would freeze up in the winter. The volumes of organic waste couldn’t be composted reasonably, so sending the organic waste to a facility was easier.

“The facilities work better anyway because they break down everything,” says Weir. He says facilities can take a certain amount of garbage that is contaminating the compost, but after a point they will not accept compost from a place with a lot of contaminates. So students at the U of C need to know what is compostable and what is not, which is why the compost educator program was brought in — “to make sure we’re doing the best we can to just get compost,” says Weir. 

To help reduce the need to sort compostable materials from non-compostable, organic clamshells have been used in MSC since September 2011, and compostable cutlery was brought in this January. 

“Most of the vendors have been pretty onside with it,” says Weir. Eventually, the use of compostable cutlery and clamshells will be part of the leases the SU makes with vendors, but currently vendors have to be willing to switch to compostable food containers and cutlery. 

Weir says that the transition to compostable cutlery was pretty smooth. However, some vendors bought biodegradable cutlery instead of compostable, and didn’t know or didn’t care about the difference between the two terms. 

“They thought it was compostable. They thought that’s what they were supposed to have, but it was actually just biodegradable,” says Weir. 

So what is the difference between biodegradable and compostable? Biodegradable means that the product will simply break down. Yet there aren’t any rules around the term because it could break down in 1,000 years, it could break down to something harmful, it could just break down to smaller pieces. 

“Compostable means that it will break down in a set amount of time, given a set environment to base elements, and to something that’s safe for the environment,” says Weir. 

Weir also explains that, a lot of the time, the biodegradable product breaks down to something that is actually more harmful for the environment than before it broke down. The term biodegradable shows corporate “green washing,” meaning companies will try to appear environmentally-friendly by having biodegradable products. 

“It’s cheaper to make biodegradable stuff, but at the same time there’s no benefit to it really,” says Weir. 

When the SU was trying to find compostable cutlery, Weir often found that the companies offering biodegradable products didn’t know the difference between the two terms. Some companies would say, “this product is 75 per cent biodegradable,” and think that’s what the SU wanted to use in MSC. 

When choosing between compostable cutlery, the SU has to balance cost with availability and whether they are able to buy in bulk. With these limitations, most of the vendors in MSC go through one or two sources.

Compostable cutlery does cost more than plastic — where plastic might approximately cost one cent per four pieces of cutlery, compostable cutlery might cost one cent per piece. Vendors were allowed to raise their prices up to 10 cents to compensate. 

“The cost is still very minimal, but it is more,” says Weir. 

The SU would like to bring in compostable cups next, yet Weir has found two big problems with this plan. The first is branding because the Pepsi cups are in the contract the SU has with Pepsi, and the change would currently have to come from Pepsi. The second problem is that there aren’t a lot of different-sized cups on the market that are both brandable and compostable. However, the SU found the same issue with compostable cutlery a few years ago. Weir noted that the supply of compostable cutlery on the market has changed a lot in the past few years, and he hopes that the market will change in terms of compostable cups too. Tim Hortons cups, when the lid is removed, are compostable. 

Although the SU has looked at plastics 1–7 recycling, the hardest part about that program is the need to wash plastic recyclables. With compostable cutlery and containers, everything can go into the compost bins. 

So where does all this collected compost go? Neil Wiens is the owner of Bio-Cycle Nutrient Solutions Limited, which operates a registered Class 1 composting facility north of Strathmore, Alberta. The facility has been established since 1997, but Wiens has owned it for the past year and a half. The facility can handle 20,000 metric tonnes of product a year. Organic waste from both Calgary’s pilot green cart program and MSC goes out to the facility. Bio-Cycle has processed about 2,500 tonnes from the four pilot communities, and approximately 200 tonnes from MSC. 

Like landfills, the composting facility charges a tipping fee at the gate. And although Wiens is legally allowed to accept anything organic, he has to be mindful of the balance of bacteria. 

Being a Class 1 facility, Bio-Cycle can accept food waste, biosolids and agri-food processing waste. A Class 2 facility can only accept manure and plant matter. 

“Because it is a registered facility, it has an impermeable base. I have water catch basins, I have six water-drain wells around the facility, which we keep tabs on, so I do check often that we’re not doing anything [harmful],” says Wiens. “My main environmental concern, personally, is the odor — to make sure that I’m composting right so that I don’t odor out my neighbours.”

There are some challenges to operating these facilities throughout North America. “The majority of people figure out they can compost but they forget that they have to market the product on the back end and, in general, the majority of them end up getting shut down because they turn into a landfill because they bring everything in and forget to take it out,” says Wiens. 

Wiens said he has no problem marketing his finished compost — 95 per cent of the product from his facility goes to agriculture, meaning back to farmers’ fields. 

“I grow food with the food that we just composted,” says Wiens. 

Weins noted that organic food waste is one of the main products going into landfills today. 

“I think we should be composting a lot more,” says Wiens. “I’m not sure why we don’t do more of it, to be honest.” He explained that composting isn’t very hard if you have a little bit of expertise and skill. 

I started my own worm bin last September because I was curious about the benefits of composting. My worms are still alive and thriving and I have learned how to balance the environment in the bin. If you can get over the ‘ick factor,’ worms make great pets, especially for students because you can forget about them for a week if midterms take over your life. And unlike most pets, their food is free. 

The worms are vegans, meaning that you can’t feed them meat, fats, milk products, whole eggs, sugars and inorganic materials. But the worms are great at handling vegetable scraps. The bin doesn’t smell unless the material compresses to a point that no oxygen is getting to it and anaerobic decomposition starts. Flies and other decomposers might want to share in the food, but freezing all the food beforehand greatly reduces the amount of flies. I would recommend doing some research before starting a worm bin, but it is a manageable task that will teach you about how nature takes care of waste. 

For his own worm bin, Weir collects compostable food, blends it in a food processor, freezes it and then unthaws it for the worms. 

With a little education, Calgarians can embrace composting for what it is: a way to allow the natural nutrient cycle to continue, and an easy way to reduce the amount of organic material being lost to landfills and the amount of toxins reaching the environment from landfills. Putting organic waste in landfills is harmful, and the alternative is very attractive.