Separating the waste from the chaff

Garret Gillespie hopes that no one ever has to use his invention. He's the type of guy who is more proud of his history as a farmer than his master's degree in engineering.

Garret Gillespie hopes that no one ever has to use his invention.

He’s the type of guy who is more proud of his history as a farmer than his master’s degree in engineering.

And he doesn’t believe that technology can help with anything in the long run.

Take composting, for example.

Everyone should be doing their own composting rather than just throwing it into those fancy new green bins.

If everyone did their own composting, they might realize certain things just don’t break down – like rubber bands, fruit stickers and plastic bags.

Even those so-called biodegradable plastic bags – the special ones people fork over heaps of money for – aren’t good for compost.

“To be biodegradable, they need a lot of UV light,” said Gillespie. “It’s just conventional plastic with an additive added to it. They take a minimum of three years to actually break down. It’s a great big scam is what it is.”

It’s also a great big problem for Whitehorse’s compost program.

During the natural composting process, the waste is maintained at 70 C for six weeks. That’s enough to break just about anything down, even motor oils and pesticides like DDTs.

“But those damn plastic bags … they’re tenacious,” said Gillespie. “After all that, we once pulled one out and that was still in mint condition.”

Gillespie’s invention will take on this plastic problem.

He’s created a large Dr. Seussian machine, called the Plastovac Plastic Separation System.

It is now being used in Victoria to great success, and Gillespie’s got a deal with a large multinational company to continue to improve upon the design.

Last week, he was touting the benefits of his Plastovac at the Yukon College’s Research Innovation and Commercialization Workshop.

As a farmer, Gillespie’s been into composting all his life.

“It’s pretty straightforward when you’re dealing with manure,” he said. “But dealing with food waste is much more challenging.”

Originally from Ireland, Gillespie had an organic farm in the Yukon for nearly a decade. He quit farming in 2009 because it was becoming more and more difficult to make a living.

Having a little extra time on his hands, Gillespie decided one day to check out Whitehorse’s composting facility. He was shocked by what he found.

“It was about 10 per cent plastic and largely the biodegradable plastic,” he said. “I was gobsmacked.”

The problem with plastic is that it interferes with the composting process.

Gillespie likens it to trying to breathe with a plastic bag over your head – the microbes involved in the composting process have trouble getting the air and water they need to thrive.

It also adds to processing costs and wears out the machinery.

The intent of any good industrial composting program is to sell the finished product at the end. But nobody wants to buy a bag of compost for their garden that’s filled with plastic.

There are machines on the market that can help get rid of the plastic from compost, but they cost anywhere between $250,000 and $500,000.

Instead, Gillespie built a device for the city, using salvaged parts and a little farmers’ know-how.

It only cost $14,000, and it worked like a charm.

He decided to give his contraption a funny name, the Plastovac, inspired by Dr. Seuss and Wallace & Gromit.

“The problem is so insane, it could get very depressing very quickly,” he said. “I choose to laugh at it instead.”

With Gillespie’s help, the city was able to start selling its compost in the summer of 2010.

Gillespie was proud to say the compost they created met all guidelines and even passed Canadian Organic Standards.

But even at a discount price of $5 for an 11-kilogram bag, not much ended up selling.

“It’s not the fault of the compost or the city,” said Gillespie. “It’s just that there’s a poor public perception of municipal compost. No one wants to buy compost for their garden from the landfill gatehouse.”

After Gillespie left his contract with the city, he received funding from the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre to continue working on his Plastovac idea.

He went back to the drawing board and came up with a more heavy-duty model.

A consultant whom Gillespie works with down in Vancouver expressed interest in this latest reincarnation of the Plastovac. He took the machine down to an industrial compost operation in Victoria and asked them to throw the worst stuff they had at it.

The design isn’t flawless, and even in the best cases, the Plastovac is unable to remove all the plastic from a pile of compost. But the machine works far better than its more expensive European counterparts.

Gillespie’s invention has attracted the attention of Vermeer, a multinational corporation that specializes in agricultural, environmental and construction equipment. He now has a deal with this company to cook up a superior prototype.

“All the work to date has been in the field, farm-style, practical know-how stuff,” he said. “What’s missing is the applied engineering research.”

Gillespie isn’t exactly donning the white lab coat – that’s not likely to ever happen.

But he is doing a literature review right now. And in the next few months, he’ll start doing some applied experiments at his shop in the Marwell industrial area.

He wants his next prototype to be able to get down to even the smallest bits of unbiodegradable junk that finds its way into compost.

Gillespie won’t go into too many details about how the machine works.

It uses air classification, which he compares to the ancient art of winnowing grain. Gillespie also came up with a supplementary separation system, which also draws on ancient knowledge – this time a technique used for seed cleaning.

He’s unclear whether or not the new prototype will be used in Whitehorse and again be sent down south.

“I hope I don’t have to leave the Yukon to test this technology,” he said.

“My deep desire is to work with the city, so that we can all benefit and continue to improve.”

But the new machine will probably never be able to remove all the plastic. The only way to do that would be for everyone to stop using those so-called biodegradable plastic bags, and take more care with what they throw in the green bin.

“It’s a transitional technology, to help us get to a saner place,” he said. “Something that will help us get to a place that we’d be proud to leave to our children.”

Contact Chris Oke at

chriso@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Ranj Pillai, minister of economic development, during a press conference on April 1.
Government rejects ATAC mining road proposal north of Keno City

Concerns from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun were cited as the main reason for the decision

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Dec. 2, 2020

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited internet options beginning Dec. 1. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet for some available Dec. 1

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited… Continue reading

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Most Read