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Food-scraps recycling fails in eco-friendly Olympic village

Louise Schwarz talks trash or more precisely she talks about the virtues of reducing trash, but it seems condo residents…

By rheatherington , in Environment Feature story , on October 17, 2012 Tags: , , ,

Louise Schwarz talks trash or more precisely she talks about the virtues of reducing trash, but it seems condo residents in the eco-friendly Olympic village do not.

Recycling Alternative bin holds compost from downtown Vancouver.

On July 10, the city funded a pilot project to eliminate food scrap waste in the Olympic village. It set up an easily accessible composting location but all residents had to do was use it. But three months later, the project closed because not enough people were taking advantage of it.

Schwarz, co-founder of Recycling Alternative, said she expected residents to use the centralized drop bins more, especially considering that the city claims it is one of the greenest neighbourhoods in North America.

“I was surprised. I mean, the Olympic village is perfect; it’s just waiting to happen…but we didn’t quite get the numbers.”

Once a week, bins were set up for a couple of hours and all residents needed to do was wander down, make a $2 donation, and drop off their compostables. Only one-third of the necessary participants took part, so the program was scrapped.

Poor participation was partly a result of residents being on summer holidays, said Schwarz.

Anthony Smith, who has lived in the village since it opened, said he was unaware of the drop spot in the plaza.

“I don’t think it was publicized enough. I was away in Galiano Island for July and August… I don’t know how to communicate very well in this place.”

Jennifer Halinda agrees. She has lived in Vancouver for 10 years and wishes there were more options for condo residents to drop off their compost.

“We totally recycle everything. We’re pretty conscious about it and we don’t like using a garburator. Who knows if everyone is home for those two hours? I think it has to be a little more accessible than that.”

Condo compost challenges

An Oct. 17 report to city council on food scrap collection noted that“voluntary uptake in multi-family and commercial buildings has been minimal.” As a result, a mandatory ban on organic material in regional disposal with fines for non-compliance will be recommended to city council.

Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer said in an email that she has concerns about implementing a mandatory ban because it is expensive to enforce fines, which can involve lengthy court processes.

“Technically, there is a bylaw that makes it illegal to dispose of anything that is otherwise recyclable, but the tools for enforcement are not very good for municipalities,” she said.

According to the 2011 census, 60 per cent of people in Vancouver live in multi-unit residential buildings but the city’s green bin compost system only serves houses and duplexes. Residents like those in the Olympic Village must now take the initiatve to dispose of their food scraps, and pay private companies to transport the waste.

Chris Conover collects trash for Recycling Alternative.

Public involvement is key

Schwarz has seen the lacklustre effects of passive city programs that don’t require real engagement from citizens.

“My mother, who’s in a house, and loads of my friends who are in houses, had no idea they could start putting food in their compost. It’s been going on for a year and a half. How ridiculous is that? This is absurd.”

Recycling Alternative experiments with drop spots in various locations around Vancouver. Schwarz says this model expanded from farmers’ markets, which already drew crowds, to hubs like the West End community centre, where they have had more success.

If everyone in the city separated compost from garbage, the amount of trash being dumped in the landfill could be cut by 30 per cent.

“We’re creating a platform for engagement and education, and conversation,” Schwarz says. “So that when it does come time for the city to roll out a program…we have now got a more informed and engaged constituency of residents who know what to do.”

The problem in the village? The city started the program during the summer and didn’t give Schwarz’s company a chance to gain momentum before funding ran out. The next step is to get strata boards involved and form a network with the city and community centres that is enhanced with active models like drop spots.