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Curbside composting

Cost, hassle, big obstacles preventing Winnipeg from joining environmentally conscious North American cities

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2010 (2740 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EVERY  person on Prince Edward Island composts almost 200 kilo­grams a year, the equivalent of two heavyweight boxers.

On average, Manitobans compost about 28 kilograms a year, according to Statistics Canada. That's about the weight of a medium-size dog.

Winnipeggers might be bad at composting because we're too busy complaining about the size of new city garbage carts or kvetching about lugging bags of leaves to composting depots.

While nearly every other big city has a curbside organic waste pickup program where everything from kitchen scraps to cat litter gets collected and composted, Winnipeg is left behind.

According to Statistics Canada, Manitobans are the second worst at keeping their organic waste out of the landfill.

City solid-waste staff have been eyeballing an organic pickup program for years -- it makes a perfunctory appearance in garbage reports to council, including the one earlier this month that sparked the debate over garbage cart sizes.

But a lack of political will and a lack of cash have always stalled any real debate on the idea. Ever since the nasty pay-as-you-throw debate a decade ago, all but a handful of city councillors have been loathe to broach any large-scale changes to how Winnipeg collects and pays for its garbage, including its organic waste.

"It would be nice to have a plan, a strategy right away instead of just talking about garbage carts," said Sylvie Hébert, the compost project co-ordinator with Resource Conservation Manitoba.

How we're doing now:

Not great.

Some community gardens host neighbourhood compost piles and some businesses and agencies -- The Forks, universities, the folk festival -- have created their own composting programs.

The University of Winnipeg's program, for example, collected about 13 tonnes of refuse from campus cafeterias in its first 18 months alone.

The school keeps buying more big storage bins because they overflow before Samborski Garden Supplies arrives to truck the waste to its private composting centre.

Meanwhile, the city's annual composter sale, where black igloo-shaped composters are doled out super-cheap in community club parking lots all over the city, has become insanely popular. The city sells between 3,000 and 4,000 a year. Last summer, when the city threw rain barrels into the mix, green-minded people lined up for hours.

The city is going to start collecting yard waste twice a year from neighbourhoods with the new garbage carts. That program grew out of complaints over the new garbage carts and how they were too small to accommodate bags and bags of autumn leaves.

Darryl Drohomerski, the city's solid-waste director, says the twice-yearly yard waste pickup could be a first foot in the door of a large-scale, year-round organic pick up program -- the silver lining in the garbage cart debate.

Besides those bright spots, composting is hodgepodge.

Only about 23 per cent of Manitobans actually compost. Compare that with P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, where curbside pickup programs have become second nature. More than 90 per cent of Islanders compost and 69 per cent of Nova Scotians do it.

A city compost pickup program would divert about 64,000 tonnes of waste a year, about 13 times what's diverted now.

That, plus more help for backyard composters and businesses, would be a vast improvement.

"It's necessary," said Alana Lajoie-O'Malley, U of W's sustainability director and the boss of the campus composting program. "If we're going to take our environmental responsibility seriously, it's not an option. It's just the right thing to do."



It would be a lot, especially for a city council that seems relentlessly committed to freezing property taxes in perpetuity.

In a report that went to council earlier this month, the city estimated it would cost $5 million a year to run a curbside pickup program. That's the equivalent of about a one per cent property tax hike.

Plus, it would cost about $5 million to set up an enclosed composting facility able to speed the decomposition process, create good quality dirt and control any stink. If it ever gets built, it would probably be located at the Brady Road landfill.

Drohomerski says those figures are worst-case scenario estimates. But they are still dramatically lower than what Ottawa's spending on its brand-new compost collection program -- about $8 million in one-time capital costs and $13 million annually.

The operating costs could be offset if the city was able to produce top-quality compost that could be sold to farmers or used by the city in parks and boulevards.

And a lot of cities, such as Markham, Ont., cut their weekly garbage collection to once every two weeks, which saves substantial cash. But most other cities also have a user-pay system for garbage instead of funding collection from property-tax revenue. It's widely seen as a fairer way to fund garbage collection that encourages conservation and discourages waste.

But without new sources of revenue, there's simply no money in the budget right now for a full-on organic waste pickup program, Drohomerski said.


The hassle factor:

Winnipeggers get cranky anytime city hall fiddles with their garbage collection and that would be no different if a green bin program was launched. Drohomerski said it would probably take about a year to roll out a green bin program throughout the city and get Winnipeggers comfortable with it.

Ottawa might be a good case study. It's been about six weeks since the capital city began delivering 240,000 wheeled green bins along with small kitchen pails to households.

Right now, the green bins are collected every two weeks, but that will increase to weekly in the hotter summer months when bins might stink.

There have been some vocal complainers and about 2,700 bins were returned to city hall by people in a huff about the program. And there's been some confusion over whether plastic bags can be used to line the bins -- they can't. But for the most part, people appear to be coping with a program that could cut Ottawa's landfill dumping by 45 per cent.


The downside:

Besides the hefty price tag and the general kvetching Winnipeggers will do, curbside pickup isn't the most environmental way to divert organics from the landfill.

Both RCM's Hébert and the U of W's Lajoie-O'Malley say it makes the best environmental sense to treat waste where you make it by using a backyard composter instead of trucking the waste all over the city to a central facility.

But there's a natural limit to the number of people willing to compost in their yards, and it's virtually impossible for apartment dwellers to compost at home. And a big city-run composting facility can accept things like dryer lint, pet poop, meat and dairy products that just don't break down in a backyard composter.


What's next:

A lot of cities, such as Toronto, didn't get serious about curbside organic pickup until they had a landfill crisis. A shortage of space at the dump and the cost of building a new landfill forced them to turn to more radical measures.

That's not likely to happen in Winnipeg because the Brady Road landfill has about 100 years' worth of room left.

But composting advocates such as Hébert are eyeing 2013 when the last garbage collection contract expires. That could be the next chance for a genuine debate on a curbside composting program.

Drohomerski says his staff have already started some preliminary planning on what a full organic pickup program would look like as part of an overall strategy. That could be ready in about a year, faster if council's interest is piqued.

And maybe curbside composting will be an issue in this fall's civic election.


Other cities with curbside composting

San Francisco


Boulder, Colo.


Durham Region (Oshawa, Ajax, Pickering, etc.) in Ontario

Niagara Region (Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, etc.) in Ontario

Markham, Ont.

Saskatoon (by 2012)



Vancouver (2010)


Charlottetown and all of Prince Edward Island

Edmonton (not curbside pickup but a system that separates out all organics)


What Winnipeggers think

Winnipeggers want curbside composting but they don't want to pay for it, according to a recent survey.

Last November, Probe Research did an online poll of about 600 Winnipeggers and found more than two thirds were interested in a curbside organics pickup program. More than one in four people were "very" interested.

The next poll question asked what fee people would be willing to pay for a curbside pickup program.

The short answer was zilch.

About 43 per cent of respondents said they wouldn't support a curbside program unless it was free. Young people were more willing to pay than older people, but only about 26 per cent said they'd be willing to pay between $1 and $49 a year.

 -- Source: City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department: Public Attitudes Towards Recycling Program, Jan. 7, 2010 Web-Link Survey Report



Learn how to backyard compost

Backyard Composting Workshops

Feb. 25, 7-8 p.m. at the Eco-Centre above Mountain Equipment Co-op.

March 17, 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the University of Winnipeg, room 2C15

Visit to register.

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