City-Wide Composting: Going Green or Going Backwards?

January 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm (environment, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , , )

A while back, I wrote an article for the Vancouver Observer about an electric composter dubbed the Red Dragon that was on trial at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  I talked at length with the Garden’s director, Mike Levenston, about this particular composting appliance and about composting in general, as an effective way to reduce the city’s waste and how the city has handled compost historically.

At the time, the City of Vancouver had just rolled out their kitchen scraps collection program, whereby any resident with yard waste collection service could start including vegetable kitchen scraps in their green bin for bi-weekly curbside pick-up.  The program was supposed to eventually be able to handle meat and dairy products (good, since it isn’t recommended to compost these in a backyard bin), but two and a half years later there’s been no movement to expand.  Also, there was talk about expanding the program to benefit those living in apartments and high-rise condos (where the greatest need for composting en masse exists), but who knows what will come of it.

The city’s kitchen waste collection program is a fine way for the city to appear to be taking a strong stand for the environment, but in fact, accomplishes little.  Mike of City Farmer (the organization that runs the Compost Demonstration Garden) pointed out that the City of Vancouver has actually had a program in place for over twenty years to subsidize residents purchasing black plastic compost bins for their backyards.  Any Vancouver resident can go to the garbage transfer station in South Van and pick one up for just $25 (compared to $75 or more for similar models available at home improvement stores).  If food waste generated by single-family homes is still heading to the landfill in unacceptable quantities, it’s because the city has failed to advertise the subsidization program to maximize its efficiency.  I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years and would never have known, until speaking with Mike, that those black bins you see everywhere are part of a city-wide program.  Obviously, not everyone in the city has outdoor space suitable for composting, but for those who do, on-site composting is a lot better for the environment than increasing the number of diesel-burning collection trucks on the roads.

Thanks to the city’s “eco-density” development plans, more Vancouverites than ever now live in high-rise apartment and condo buildings.  Arguably, residents of high-density areas stand to benefit the most from a compost collection service, since space is a limiting factor in how much compost an on-site system can handle.  But, if rooftop gardens can become a valued asset in residential buildings, why not on-site compost systems?  Even if they’re not planned for and integrated into a building’s design from the start, there’s something to be said for grassroots activism.   Click here for one NYC apartment dweller’s story of how she started an on-site composting program for her building.  When neighbors, Strata counsels and building managements just can’t be swayed, there’s still plenty that you can do to divert your organic waste from the landfill:

First, the object of my visit to the Compost Demonstration Garden, the Red Dragon electric composter, a sleek, modern-looking appliance that eats organic waste and churns out usable compost in under 48 hours–impressive, but Mike and I agreed it seemed silly to use electricity to do a job nature would gladly do for you, albeit a bit slower.

The Bokashi fermentation system is another possibility for condo-dwellers.  The result, however, is not fully composted; food waste still has to be added to an active compost pile, but if you’re a condo-dweller with a community garden nearby or a friend with a compost pile in their yard, the fermentation process will keep food waste odor-free on your balcony until you can deposit it elsewhere.

Last, but certainly not least, composting with worms in compact, odor-free bins.  Vermi-composting, Mike informed me, has also long been a part of the city’s program to encourage residents to compost their own kitchen scraps.  You’d never know it for the lack of information out there, but the City of Vancouver also subsidizes worm bin purchases made through the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  Included in the low cost of $25 is the ventilated bin, bedding material, worms, a handbook, and a one-hour tutorial to get you started.  In my experience, worms definitely have their food preferences but will eat through most kitchen scraps in a couple weeks.  The bin remains surprisingly odor-free, requires little to no time or effort to maintain, and produces a high-quality fertilizer that can be used to start seeds or give houseplants a boost.  The only drawback is that a single bin is hardly enough to process the kitchen waste of a family of four–we’d need three or four worm bins to handle all our scraps!  (Or a big dog…)

Given that the City already has this subsidization program in place for getting people to compost on their own, I just don’t see the need for trucking kitchen scraps around the lower mainland.  Certainly, there’s no reason why they couldn’t step up the program, advertise it a little, educate city residents about the need for handling some of their waste–just like they bought ad space in all the Skytrain stations before Christmas urging people to “give memories, not garbage.”  Then, they could more effectively deploy collection services in high density areas where the need is greatest and only pick-up items like dairy and meat wastes that can’t be properly handled in a backyard compost system.  Heck, the city could start a Go Vegan campaign and eliminate the need completely, if it really wants to be the “Greenest City in the World.”



  1. Deb said,

    I love the worm composting idea. We’ll certainly do that when we have a house again. In the meantime, I can’t figure a good way to compost while full-timing, living in a 25 foot Airstream. Maybe a bucket in the truck bed if worms aren’t affected too much by temperature. At least in Mesa AZ we have a very good recycling program, but on the road we have trouble finging recycling opportunities. Something to work on for full-timers.

    • kelseywood said,

      Composting while full-timing in a trailer? Worms would be the way to go: a worm bin is more compact and processes food scraps a lot faster than a traditional compost heap. Odorlessness would certainly be a huge plus in tight quarters. As for climate, they’d probably prefer somewhere in the range of 60 to 78, but may tolerate higher outdoor temperatures given that their moist, dark bedding would stay a bit cooler. One consideration for finding a suitable location for a worm bin: they need decent ventilation, so a closed truck bed may not work for that reason. I’ve seen a VW van with pots of fresh herbs growing on the sunny dashboard. That could be you guys and you could fertilize with your own worm castings!

      Something that occurred to me after writing this post is that it isn’t just residences producing organic waste in our cities; lots of food gets thrown out at restaurants and businesses when it goes bad sitting on store shelves. Perhaps, compost collection services could be targeted at commercial food wasters, where volume would prevent on-site composting…or perhaps, there’s an opportunity here for small businesses to handle compost at the neighborhood level, contracted by local business associations. The finished compost could be used in the neighborhoods where it is generated to enliven boulevard and curbside plantings; it could be given freely to school gardens and sold to local residents for use in their own yards. Handling waste close to where it is generated is the best way to maintain soil health without importing large quantities of artificial fertilizers while reducing transportation-related emissions at the same time.

  2. massagecenter said,

    I recently was in Sweden, there apartment complexes have a recycling center which is a building where your trash is sorted, glass, plastic, metal, paper and just trash. There was also a big machine to put your kitchen scraps into. At the other end of the machine out came compost, they put the compost into a large trash bin of sorts where the apartment community could use the compost for the planting boxes on their balcony.

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