Composting conundrum

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, May 2014

Searching for a sensible solution to kitchen scraps—in our own backyard.

When Saanich’s new garbage truck trundled onto our street last week the neighbourhood was ready. We’d all stationed our new square “carts”like butlers along the curb, the larger grey ones full of garbage and the smaller green ones proffering a smorgasbord of kitchen and garden organics. 

The truck sidled up to the first grey cart and extended a huge orange arm that enveloped it in a bear hug and hoisted it high overhead. Dangling there, its unlatched lid yawned open and garbage spewed into the truck’s maw. The lid smacked shut again when the cart was set back down. 

“How long do you think the pails will last?” asked one skeptic to no one in particular. I silently wondered what people might start putting in them now that hands-on surveillance has been removed from the process. 

Soon the organics truck followed and began lifting and tipping the green carts. A glitch was revealed when the lids refused to unlatch. “Damn!” said the driver after the third malfunction, then felt the need to explain when he saw me watching. “There’s not enough weight in them to push the lid open,” he said, disembarking the cab to relieve the cart of a single sodden bag that he pitched into the truck. That made me ponder the cost of emptying legions of green carts containing just a bag or two of t-bones and banana peels. However, the municipality assures that the problem has been corrected. 

Unless you have health or mobility problems and have applied for assistance with your carts, refuse will no longer be fetched from backyards. This is an update whose time has come but here there are kinks to iron out as well. A few streets over I saw an elderly woman in bathrobe and slippers yell at the truck as it bypassed her house. She had no carts at the curb but must have had stuff to pick up because she marched down the street to the truck’s next stop and, gesticulating like a traffic cop, gave the driver a piece of her mind. 

“She doesn’t seem all that fragile,” a bystander observed.

(Quick story from my husband’s childhood: One day his grade four teacher who lived across the street forgot it was garbage day until she heard the truck rumbling by. Racing down the driveway in her bathrobe she called, “Am I too late for the garbage?” “Nope,” said the driver. “Hop right in.” But I digress.) 

I cheered when Saanich first announced its plan to begin divert-ing organic refuse to a composting plant in Central Saanich. Finally we’d stop dumping 8000 tonnes of renewable material into our only landfill every year. But then the project started going sideways, well after tons of tax dollars had been spent on the plan, the trucks and some 64,000 carts. The composting plant in Central Saanich that had been contracted to receive our organics had its operating license suspended by the CRD after a long string of complaints from neighbours. That left Saanich scrambling to find other options for the 150 tonnes of now-costly organic waste it would be collecting every week.

A five-year deal was struck with a Cobble Hill facility but neighbourhood troubles have started brewing there too. And really, it’s not ideal to grunt all that volume over the Malahat, especially not the garden clippings that have previously been composted at a number of local mulch-making enterprises.  

Neighbouring municipalities are in the same tight spot and have fared no better in their search for a sustainable solution. Victoria has decided to barge all residential organics to Richmond for the next 20 months, a contract that will cost up to $4.7 million not including the carbon footprint.

All of this sets the stage for serious resolve to develop a proper local composting facility, and bureaucratic eyes are finally turning in that direction. Reusing organics has always been the right thing to do, and a project of this scope was bound to have growing pains. Still, it probably came off the design table too soon, the prudence of what to do with the organics having been overridden by the glamour of new trucks and carts all over the place.

In the meantime, we can reduce our food waste and compost at least some of it ourselves. That makes eminent sense and will always be sustainability’s first rule.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic loves working with compost, nature’s categorical proof that life is a perfect cycle.