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Vancouverites embrace organic-waste pilot program

Vancouver resident George Bayley watches the garbage truck as it makes its way through the alleyway behind Mr. Bayley's home in East Vancouver October 15, 2007.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Roy Leonard's house got chosen as one of the first 2,000 in Vancouver to be part of an experiment in recycling food scraps, he threw himself into the task.

"I didn't think I'd be that green," said Mr. Leonard, a retired art wholesaler who lives in a small turreted bungalow just east of Cambie near Queen Elizabeth Park. Pork-chop bones, paper, coffee grounds, eggshells, everything went in.

In spite of that, he felt like he didn't end up putting that much extra into his food-scraps bin (formerly for yard trimmings only). And his regular garbage piled up, since part of the experiment was to reduce pickup from once a week to every two.

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"I don't think it works the way they have it now," said Mr. Leonard, standing on his steps. His wife, Sheila, ruefully agreed.

But the Leonards are going to be living with this new garbage system anyway, as will thousands of other Metro Vancouver residents in the coming year.

After seven months, Vancouver's program has been judged a success.

"We're pretty happy with the results of the pilot," said the city's chief engineer, Peter Judd. Forty-six per cent of people in the study area started recycling all of their organic waste – a far higher rate than most recycling programs in North America show in their early years.

It was also higher than the 10 to 20 per cent recycling of simple organics – fruits, vegetables, plants – that is now permitted throughout the city, but which few residents know about or are doing.

Mr. Judd said staff will likely be recommending a neighbourhood by neighbourhood rollout over the next year for the city's 100,000 single-family homes. (There is still no system for apartments.)

And several other municipalities in the region are due to kick off their new food-scraps-collection systems this year. The three North Shore municipalities are all set to start in May. Surrey will be launching its system in October.

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That's in addition to several other municipalities that already have those programs, including Port Coquitlam, the pioneer in 2008, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Port Moody, New Westminster and Richmond.

All 21 municipalities in Metro Vancouver were supposed to be offering food-scraps recycling by the end of 2011, as part of Metro Vancouver's drive to increase its diversion of garbage into recycling from the current 55 per cent to 80 per cent by 2020.

But many jurisdictions are proceeding cautiously, because getting people to recycle at all or recycle the way they're supposed to is more challenging than it looks.

In Port Coquitlam, the municipality started a food-scraps-recycling program in 2009. But it wasn't until the city reduced the collection of regular garbage to once every two weeks that people really started tossing food scraps into the green-waste bins.

Subsequently, the diversion rate from regular garbage jumped from 50 to 62 per cent.

Mr. Judd said Vancouver is going slow to see what works to encourage people to recycle.

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Vancouver's pilot program divided the 2,000 homes into four and tried different tactics with each group to encourage recycling, providing kitchen bins to some, follow-up advice to others, personal visits in advance to still others.

City staff also examined what people were actually doing to see what the "contamination rate" was – that is, the amount of garbage thrown into the wrong bins.

The main facility doing organics recycling for the Metro Vancouver municipalities, Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre, will only accept recycling with a low level of contamination from regular garbage.

One thing Mr. Judd says the city also has to factor in: Many people will want bigger garbage cans for their regular garbage, since it will only be picked up every two weeks.

That's something his department is expecting a lot of as families like the Leonards adjust to the new world of garbage.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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