The city’s compost plans are a mess

Garret Gillespie With the city now operating the compost facility, there is no escaping the reality of its contradictory and hypocritical relationship to the compost program. On the one hand, the city is doing admirable and worthy work by increasing dive

Garret Gillespie

With the city now operating the compost facility, there is no escaping the reality of its contradictory and hypocritical relationship to the compost program.

On the one hand, the city is doing admirable and worthy work by increasing diversion of organic material from the landfill. On the other hand, the city is practically ignoring the product of all this work, the compost itself. City hall believes its responsibility to the compost program ends at the compost facility. They expect others to use their compost, when they do not use it themselves.

The city is now taking a large backward step on this project. Council’s recent decision has eliminated “approved input status” – in other words, organic certification for the compost. Organic certification has taken years of work to achieve, and has been proved essential to the development of trust in the product, and expansion of the market.

Worse, the city has also eliminated all compost marketing and distribution. There will be no more delivery service, no ability to load pick-up trucks at the compost facility, no knowledgeable customer service, product support and advice. Customers certainly won’t see bags at any of the local garden centres again, either.

The city has no plan to service customers, no number to call, no website to place orders. Most other cities with compost programs are the biggest users of their own compost. Why not here? This is an untenable position.

Sales and product movement are going to crash under city management. This is coming at a time when the city is planning on doubling intake to the facility. The compost facility is producing the equivalent volume of city hall every year in compost.

Even though we had the best sales year ever, we moved one quarter of this amount. We are producing more compost than we can currently sell. If we had been able to continue on the sales trajectory from the last few years, we should be able to sell all we produce in another few years. However, ongoing investment is required to do this.

The city is locked in the notion that the market will pay for the sales and distribution of product, but this is wrongheaded. The market is currently too small for this. If we were to pass the full cost along to our customers the compost will be unreasonably expensive and uncompetitive. This situation is similar to what the local recyclers face: it costs them to get their product to market, it is the same with compost.

The city’s disrespect for the recyclers is well known: it banned cardboard from the landfill without adequately supporting the processors who have to deal with the city’s decision. The city is intent on the same course of action with the compost program by placing an unreasonable burden on the facility contractor. No wonder our recent bid proposal appeared to be expensive: we were merely internalizing the costs the city was expecting to externalize and dump on the contractor and the public.

The only plan the city has is to build a $275,000-a-year mountain of premium compost. It reminds me of a Euro-style butter mountain or wine lake. Why spend this much to build a pile of compost as big as the Canada Games Centre within the next year? If mountain building (SWAP Hill?) is the goal, then it can be done with much less fuss and expense. It doesn’t need to be organic to be turned into a monument to poor planning and foot dragging.

If the city does not want to rapidly run out of space at the compost facility, it is going to have to find a very large carpet to sweep all this material under. Or it is going to have to work fast to stimulate uptake. But there is good news: the city can implement policy to phase-in compost use in the parks, and phase-out chemical fertilizer use to the tune of $25,000 per year. The city will also save on reduced applications, irrigation costs, reduced winter kill, and better turf health. Using compost would give the city desperately needed credibility on this file.

City hall must realize that diverted organics entering the facility do not magically appear: there is a well-resourced plan to collect the material. Conversely, finished compost will not magically disappear, which unfortunately seems to be the current understanding. There must be a well-resourced plan to distribute compost that is not entirely off-loaded by the city onto private business or the customer. Sadly, city hall is ignoring this.

It has been my greatest pleasure to serve the community, and has brought me great joy to hear from hundreds of you who have shared your gardening success stories. We have great compost, and more and more people are learning this. Maybe some day the city will too.

Garret Gillespie is president

of Boreal Compost Enterprises.

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