Categories: Lifestyle

Rolling in the green bin

Bob Newstead thought the green carts were a great idea when they rolled into town.

It was June 2008. Newstead and the rest of Strathcona County had just made the leap into curbside organics recycling. Now, instead of having one bin for trash, they had three: trash, recyclables, and kitchen and yard waste.

Newstead, who’s lived in the county since 1972, says he welcomed the system at first. “It was about time the county and this part of Canada got on board.”

Then he got his trash bill — $21.95, or about $10 more than it was before. “It’s almost doubled the cost per month for many of the households,” he says of the changes. It also brought unpleasant surprises like stinky bins and maggots.

Newstead is one of the county’s most vocal critics of organics recycling, but is also one of its supporters. The organics program is worth its price, he says — it just needs some adjustment. “It doesn’t come overnight, and it doesn’t come without some extra effort.”

St. Albert plans to start organics recycling next June, and it will take a lot of time, effort, and money to introduce. Fortunately, we can learn a lot about the process from our neighbours.

Why compost

City council voted last month to spend $3.7 million to bring fully automatic trash collection with organics (kitchen and yard waste) recycling to St. Albert. It’s been pitched as a cost-saving measure, meant to shave $640,000 a year off operating costs, and a way to meet the trash reduction goals set out in the city’s environmental master plan. But it will also add about $6 to the average monthly trash bill, a June report to council notes — about $2 more than what will be added if we stay with our current system.

Strathcona County started organics collection in 2008 for many of the same reasons as St. Albert, says Leah Seabrook, the county’s waste management co-ordinator. Like St. Albert, the county had a depot-only system for recyclables and organics. County residents wanted curbside service. The county also wanted to meet the province’s 2010 trash reduction goal (500 kilograms per person per year).

Like St. Albert, the county’s landfill (Clover Bar) was set to close, which meant they had to switch to a more distant, more expensive place for their trash. The new landfill fees were so high it was actually cheaper to send organic waste to a composter, Seabrook says. “This was a way for us to manage costs.”

Growing pains (and maggots)

The county bought 52,000 carts and brought in automated curbside recycling and organics collection in 2008. Staff had just three months to educate residents about how to use them.

“It was a struggle,” Seabrook says. “We won’t lie.”

Staff got up to 11,860 calls a month on the changes at one point. Surprisingly, she says, few of them were complaints — most calls were along the lines of “where do I put this elastic band/paperclip?”

The county’s green team was a great help here, she says. These trained trash experts would talk one-on-one with residents as the carts arrived in their neighbourhood, answering any questions they had on their use. “In five weeks, we hit every home.”

One of the first challenges Newstead says he faced was finding space for all the bins. “You need a micrometer,” he jokes. He opens the cupboard under the sink to reveal a trash, organics and recyclables bin crammed into it on sliding racks.

It was also tough figuring out what to toss and what to compost. Newstead eventually hit on a rule of thumb: “If it once had a life, it goes in the green bin.” Bones, paper napkins and banana peels go in the organics tub, while plastic wrap and packaging go in the trash. Clean newspaper can be recycled or composted; greasy paper must be composted.

Summer heat brought another surprise to Newstead’s bin: bugs.

“The whole [outside]bucket was full of maggots,” he says. The problem turned out to be bones, which attracted flies. After a thorough rinse, he learned to layer his bin with lawn scraps to keep the bugs out. You can also use compostable bags.

The county’s bi-weekly collection schedule also raised a smelly stink that first summer, Seabrook says, as organics sat in the sun for two weeks at time. They now collect organics weekly during the summer to cut down on the smell, just like the plan for St. Albert.

To the rot-house

After a big white truck empties the bins using a hydraulic claw, the whole rotting mess goes to a composting facility like the one at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre.

The centre’s composter is like the one in your backyard, says supervisor Jim Lapp, except it’s bigger and hotter, which lets it handle tougher materials like meat and bone. “It’s a controlled biological process.” It also tends to stink, which is why a secretary once gave him a pine-tree air freshener to wear around his neck.

The process starts when trucks dump unsorted trash at the centre’s transfer station. Crews and machines screen out non-organic waste for disposal and shove the rest into mixer drums the length of six buses.

Two days later, the now-unrecognizable debris falls out the other end in the aeration hall — a stainless steel warehouse the size of 14 hockey rinks. With its sulphurous lighting, stifling heat and suffocating odour, it looks, feels and smells like hell. Long, lumpy beds of brown waste stretch into the distance, slowly turned and watered by augers on a bridge crane two buses long.

Bacteria create heat as they eat, Lapp explains, which warms the inside of the compost beds to about 65 C — hot enough to kill pathogens. It can get up to 40 C in the hall in the summer, he continues, with 95 per cent humidity. “In the wintertime, it’ll rain!”

The augers fluff and hydrate the waste to keep it composting, slowly shuffling it to one side of the hall over three weeks. Hundreds of pipes under the beds suck air through the waste and blow it through steaming wood-chip piles outside to manage the smell.

Once the waste reaches the far side of the hall, it drops onto a conveyor belt for more screening and heads outside to bigger piles. After about five months, it turns into black, dirt-like compost, ready for use on farms.

Hard work, but it works

Composting and recycling have helped keep about 60 per cent of Edmonton’s trash out of the dump, Lapp says. “If we did all this stuff in 1974,” he notes, as he drives by the grassy hill that is the now-full Clover Bar dump, “this’d still be operating.”

Strathcona County’s diversion rate has gone to 65 per cent from 36 since it started its new waste program, according to Seabrook, about half of which is due to greater organics collection. Residents are also producing slightly less waste per year overall than they did before — 1.07 tonnes per home compared to 1.20.

“It’s actually started bringing neighbourhoods together,” she adds. Neighbours will put out each other’s bins, for example, and share recycling tips. Many brag about the compost program to others. “This is their way of making a difference.”

The program still needs improvement, Newstead says: it’s expensive and, due to its flat rates, doesn’t reward people who toss less trash. “The more effort we put into recycling … the more we pay,” he grouses.

But it will mean less trash and less cost in the future, he says. “It’s time to recognize that sustainable communities, sustainable society, and a sustainable environment calls for extra effort,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to do it, then you’re not going to contribute to sustainable development.”

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.