Today, some of the Master Recyclers ventured into compost territory, visiting two facilities: Richmond’s Harvest Power and Delta’s Enviro-Smart Organics. (Master Recylers is a program, in its first year here in Vancouver, that turns students into teachers, or at least advocates, for the promoting and outreach of waste reduction, recycling and composting, and is organized by the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation and its waste committee.)

I’ve always been captivated by the business of waste, so a chance to get down and dirty fascinated me. So for the equally enthused, here’s the rundown:

Harvest Power is the largest of the two (about three times the operation of Enviro-Smart), yet both operate relatively the same. They have contracts with local haulers that discard their organic waste for a fee. Think green trimmings, food scraps, packaged and processed goods from residential and commercial clients. (Tipping fees typically range $30 to $85 dollars per tonne, depending on how clean your waste is; Enviro-Smart offers their services free to Delta residents). Both use depackaging machinery to get product out of plastic or other containers more easily for bulk throwaways; while Harvest Power harnesses the organics’ release of methane gas (processed through an anaerobic digester before it becomes true compost via aerobic processes), converts it into power and sells it back to BC Hydro on the grid, supplying enough energy for 900 homes. Otherwise, organics are ground up, with compost at each facility left to sit for six weeks to three months as under cover or open air windrows (long raised heaps), with the occasional toss and eventual filter of plastic remains and the sort. Final compost is sold by the yard and is offered in various formats: organic soil (which is a stretch in my opinion), garden soil and blends with 25 to 50% sand. The challenges are the same for the two composters: contamination of organics (single stream haulers!), slow-decomposing biodegradable bags, and well, plastic, plastic and more plastic. Seems we’re putting everything in the organic bin, even running shoes!

Food waste at Enviro-Smart

Food waste pile awaiting a quick sort before being ground.

Compost windrows

Compost in open air windrows.

While I connected with the operation at Enviro-Smart more (smaller facility, more approachable, and less corporate), I’m dumbfounded by the magnitude of edible food waste in our recycling streams. Piles and piles of apples, pumpkins, potatoes—and loaves and loaves of bread. And most of it from our grocery stores and home refrigerators.

I left heavyhearted.

As much as composting is a part of the waste cycle, I call for a total recall in the way we think. Better we advocate for reuse and donation than wasted and trashed. So in the spirit of diversion, I stopped at one of my local grocers on my way home and asked if I could take anything destined for the bin and was kindly gifted with a box of yellow peppers.

Perhaps it is true… Small steps lead to big changes.

Salvaged yellow peppers