Finding the divine in dirt

For most people compost is just dirt, but for Garrett Gillespie, the owner of Boreal Compost Enterprises, it's a "manifestation of the divine.

For most people compost is just dirt, but for Garrett Gillespie, the owner of Boreal Compost Enterprises, it’s a “manifestation of the divine.

The process by which microbes break down complex, sometimes toxic, molecules into a nutrient-rich soil is a transformative process so vast and complicated Gillespie considers it beyond human understanding.

“This is the rebirth of things that were once living,” he said. “Every single molecule in your body can be transformed into something entirely different.

“It’s a reflection of the universe, is what it is.”

Given his almost mystical affinity for compost, it’s not surprising that the City of Whitehorse chose Gillespie’s company to take over the city’s compost facility.

The two-year pilot project, which began earlier this month, is the first public-private partnership Whitehorse has done, said Dave Muir, the manager of public works.

Under the terms of the agreement, the city will continue to pay for the general operations of the facility, to the tune of $195,000 a year.

For that, the city gets 20 per cent of the finished compost for use in its own projects free of charge and also gets 66 per cent of all of the sales of the compost.

The city is hoping to pull in about $40,000 this year from the deal, said Muir.

Whitehorse has diverted organics from the landfill for almost two decades, but it was in 2008, with the launch of the curbside green-bin program, that things really go going.

“Since then it’s just kept getting bigger and bigger, and it’s to the point now where we feel it’s ready to go to that next step and really become a major facility that can produce large volumes of high quality compost,” said Muir.

However, the city doesn’t have the in-house expertise needed, he said. That’s why they tapped Gillespie.

When he waxes poetic about the mystery of compost, Gillespie knows what he’s talking about. His resume is impressive.

In addition to running a farm in the territory for almost a decade, Gillespie has his master’s degree in agricultural engineering with a specialization in soils.

And it’s not even the first time that he’s worked with the municipal compost facility. In 2009, he designed and built a machine to separate plastic from the compost.

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“Every municipal compost facility has got a major challenge with plastic,” said Gillespie.

The Plastovac Plastic Separation System he invented is now being used at a large composting facility in Victoria, and he’s partnered with the U.S.-based equipment company, Vermeer Corporation, and the Cold Climate Innovation Centre at Yukon College, to develop a heavy-duty version of the machine.

“What I’ve developed is good already, and it’s far better than anything on the market right now, but what I’m aiming for is perfection,” said Gillespie.

In the next few weeks, he hopes to have a Plastovac up and running at the Whitehorse compost facility.

Right now Whitehorse diverts about 2,500 metric tonnes of organic waste per year. That’s only about 15 per cent of the city’s garbage, said Gillespie.

The territory and city aim to get the waste diversion rate up to 50 per cent in the next three years. It’s possible to do, but it will take a sizable investment in the municipal compost facility, said Gillespie.

“For another $5 million, that could get us to 20,000 tonnes, which would get us to 70 per cent waste diversion at the landfill,” he said. “The rest largely is recyclable.”

There are also some regulatory hurdles that makes the composting facility more expensive then it needs to be, he added. Under the territory’s solid-waste regulations, compost inputs are treated as toxic waste.

“It shouldn’t be,” said Gillespie. “That imposes some really heavy costs.”

Right now, expansion isn’t on the horizon. Gillespie is focused on getting the facility running smoothly.

“We need to get what’s there working right before we expand.”

There is a big demand for compost in the city. When it went up for sale at the Fireweed Market last week, bags of compost flew off the shelf.

“We had to do an emergency bagging,” said Gillespie. “We sold out everything in the first hour.”

The compost sells for $5 a bag, or $55 a cubic yard for bulk orders. They also offer topsoil and lawn and garden packages.

Orders can be picked up at the compost yard, but they will deliver anywhere in the territory, for a price.

“We really need this in our community, and we really need it to work well,” said Gillespie.

Just seeing the landfill first hand can be a traumatizing experience for the faint of heart, he said.

“Everything we do is there,” said Gillespie. “It’s like this archeological record of the insanity of our society.

“The great thing about compost is it’s one of Mother Nature’s ways of helping us out of that pickle.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com

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