Winnipeg Civic Elections, Part 2 – Composting: How to Capitalize on Waste

October 15, 2018 - 9 minutes read

By Jakob Sanderson, UMSU President 

When it comes to what consumers, businesses and institutions discard, the inclusion of organic waste with all other garbage is akin to throwing away money. City officials should recognize that the U of M Fort Garry campus is uniquely positioned for use as a pilot site to create a municipal composting program. 

Not all waste is created equal. Rather, organic waste represents a massive untapped resource for the city. When properly diverted away from landfills and converted into compost, organic waste can slash municipal expenditures on landfills, mitigate harmful greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and be used to rejuvenate community green spaces. With that in mind, it’s encouraging to see that establishing a curbside compost pick-up program appears to be a rare point of consensus among Winnipeg’s mayoral candidates. Whomever is elected must make good on their pledge by taking the first steps to establish the necessary municipal infrastructure.

Composting, as widely-conceived, is a straightforward concept: organic waste is diverted from landfills and stored into a ventilated container where it is left to decompose until it becomes a soft, nutrient-dense compound that can act as a natural means to boost soil productivity and water retention. This process renders both economic and environmental benefits. First, by decreasing the volume of material flowing into a city’s landfills the amount of taxpayer money required to maintain and expand landfill sites plummets. In 2015, Winnipeg’s interim solid waste manager noted that 40% of what’s being dumped into Winnipeg landfills could be diverted if organic waste was collected. Second, composting prevents the generation of methane, a harmful GHG twenty-times more potent than carbon dioxide produced by organic material when it is buried under trash and deprived of oxygen during the decomposition phase. According to a study by the Commission on Environmental Co-operation, improved handling of organic waste nationwide has the potential to slash upwards of 3.4 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent from Canada’s overall GHG emissions. That equals roughly half of the emissions from Canada’s domestic aviation industry. Lastly, the final compost product can be invaluable in bolstering community and residential gardens and other city green spaces where the use of harsh synthetic chemical fertilizers should be avoided.  

However, the truth about composting is a bit more complicated. While Winnipeg implemented bi-weekly curbside pickup of yard waste in April 2016, city council shied away from enacting a more robust curbside organic waste pick-up system after finding that it would cost households upwards of $55-$100 annually. Like blue bin recycling schemes, if even a small amount of the wrong materials has been tossed in the mix then a whole collection becomes contaminated. Therefore, any municipal composting scheme requires prominent public messaging and signage about what constitutes compostable waste, paired with a thorough process of sifting and sorting of what is collected.  This is particularly true when it comes to collecting food waste as opposed to yard waste – something Winnipeg has lagged behind other Canadian cities in doing. According to findings from the 2011 Households and Environment Survey, the latest comprehensive statistics, a mere 24% of households in Winnipeg reported that they composted kitchen scraps – only Montreal was lower (18%). Elsewhere, similar sized cities of Halifax (92%), Hamilton (68%) and Ottawa-Gatineau (65%) reported much higher rates. Meanwhile, by 2011 Edmonton already had a diversion program in place at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre wherein organic waste is removed from residential waste collections and sent for composting.     

Seeing a service gap, the non-profit Green Action Centre stepped in to offer Winnipeg residents organic waste pickup services for $25 per month via its Compost Winnipeg program beginning in January 2017. While the Compost Winnipeg initiative is laudable, its services are inherently suited for single-family homes with higher levels of disposable income and proactive environmentally-conscious businesses. They are no substitute for a municipal wide system that normalizes organic waste collection amongst the wider public and commercial entities. Indeed, figures from Statistics Canada show that from 2008-2016 residential waste disposal amounts in Manitoba have been trending downward, while non-residential waste disposal in the province has increased. Only a municipally administered system will be able to properly service business complexes, shopping centres, arenas, schools, and other institutions, which together are the province’s largest producers of waste.  

Any such municipal system will require the development of a new collection stream with organics and post-consumer waste separated into compostable material and transported to a processing site. City officials should recognize that rather than trying to roll out a municipal wide scheme right off the hop, a smarter method would be to use a pilot program approved through the city’s Water and Waste Department and bring it to scale. This is where we advocate that city council work in collaboration with the U of M administration to utilize the Fort Garry campus as a test lab wherein different methods of collection, separation and diversion of specific organic waste materials can be troubleshooted before being deployed city-wide.  

There are several key aspects that make the U of M Fort Garry campus an ideal location as a pilot site. First, the University’s Office of Sustainability would be able to connect the pilot program with the necessary biosystems engineering expertise on campus to dissect the typical waste mix in an average garbage stream and what it would take to compost that. Second, the Brady 4R Winnipeg Depot landfill is only 10km away. Opened in 2016, the Brady site is located just outside the Perimeter Highway southwest of the city and offers free recycling services for all city residents to drop-off everything from electronic waste, household and yard waste and building materials. Crucially, the Brady site already has all the underlying infrastructure in place necessary to safely process large volumes of compost: pest control management; proper zoning measures to inhibit land development around the site; and leachate collection to prevent dissolved substances harmful to the environment from escaping. The University already brings its organic waste there, where it’s treated as garbage; separating streams would simply split work, not create more. Lastly, the population on the Fort Garry campus on any given day hovers around 30,000-35,000 people, essentially making the campus the third largest city in Manitoba, providing the volume of waste necessary to rigorously test any pilot scheme so that it is fit to bring to scale city-wide once perfected. A first step would see city leadership working with the university administration to commission a proper feasibility study with an engineering company.  

Leadership is about identifying opportunity and making decisive action. Curbside organic waste pick-up is something that has been on city council’s radar for years and is something different cities of a similar size are already doing. If we’re going to get there in 5-10 years, we’re going to encounter the same logistical issues. There’s no reason why the city shouldn’t begin the process now by taking advantage of an ideal opportunity to use the U of M Fort Garry campus to test out a system that works best for Winnipeg.  

This is the second of a two-part series by UMSU focused on important issues related to Winnipeg’s 2018 Civic Elections. You can read part one, ‘Winnipeg in Transit’, here