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Serving the few (and the fruit flies), not the many

Beyond the news of the province's larger-than-expected deficit, the lower-than-expected tolls on the Port Mann Bridge, the fact that there won't be a fall sitting of the legislature, and a bear on the loose in Burnaby, there were few local news stories this week that commanded the ink, air time and bandwidth devoted to the City of Vancouver's announcement that it's expanding the green-bin program to include chicken bones.

Not only was it a major news story, but in my tiny world, it was also the subject of much debate, speculation and daydreaming about whether we could ever become one of those families you see on the news that goes through an entire year producing only one large yogurt container full of garbage. The answer, incidentally, is "not a chance."

Of course, it's more than chicken bones that has people so excited. It's also meat, fish, dairy products, pizza boxes and other food-soiled scrap paper, including my latest property tax notice.

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The mayor even held a news conference to demonstrate the proper way to scrape it all off a plate and into your green bin. Hold the plate in one hand, tilt the plate over your green bin, and use some sort of utensil to push the food off the side of the plate. Gravity pretty much takes care of the rest.

Throwing food scraps into the green bin is nothing new for people who live in single-family homes or duplexes in Vancouver. We've been doing it for years. We have the fruit flies to prove it.

Earlier this week, I suggested the new rules brought me even closer to my goal of creating the world's most effective rat magnet outside my garage door.

But someone reminded me that the green bins now contain exactly the same stuff that used to be rotting and stinking in a different container – the garbage can. This may be true, but back then all of that smelly stuff was packed into ballistics-grade, non-compostable, air-tight garbage bags, impervious to even the most robust insects, never mind those fruit flies.

Now, nestled between layers of grass-clippings and hedge-trimmings in my green bin, the new layers of gristle and curdled sauce tell a story. They are the stratified history of a fortnight of unloved meals and fruit gone bad exposed to air for all to enjoy, olfactorily speaking, that is.

Avid landfill preservationists tell me that the way to avoid bad smells and pests in between runs to the green bin is to put the compostable material into the freezer. Without going into detail about the eating habits of all members of the household, this is not an option for me.

We have, until recently, simply collected scraps in a stainless-steel bowl on the counter which would be emptied into the bin as needed. Unsightly, but effective.

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As an alternative we recently purchased a delightful antique-looking pot with the word "Compost" printed onto its enamelled surface. Holes punched in the lid allow for some ventilation, while a spongy filter prevents fruit flies from getting in. The filter, though, turns out to be the perfect fruit fly incubation medium. Until we got rid of the thing, we were greeted each morning by the orphaned offspring of the fruit flies we had murdered the night before.

But the truth is, we have it easy. A walk to the lane with a bowl full of stuff once a day won't kill us.

The problem with this pizza-box plan as planet saver is numbers: The majority of Vancouverites don't live in single-family homes or duplexes. They live in apartment buildings and condo towers and townhouse complexes – forms of housing that satisfy the city's desire to densify, but have yet to be indoctrinated into the cult of zero waste. We're told it's coming.

But for now, if you want to get rid of chicken bones and melon rinds and you live in an apartment or condo, good luck. It means not only storing the stuff in your freezer, but also walking it down to community green bins or dumping it at your weekend farmers market.

Maybe I need to expand my social circle, but I just don't know that many people who are that organized, or have that kind of time.

It's true, all of that kitchen stuff adds up. Diverting it from the waste stream is a good thing.

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But like other hopeful initiatives in this city, while well-meaning, right now it serves the few and not the many.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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