(Post-meeting update: Council adopted the staff report and recommendations. Only one speaker spoke, but provided excellent input. Staff were directed to continue working on plans to expand food scraps diversion. Stay tuned.) Below is an open letter from CityHallWatch to Mayor and Council offering some questions and suggestions for consideration, based on hundreds of conversations, plus research and actual hands-on initiatives in Vancouver.
At a meeting of the Vancouver City Council’s standing committee on Planning, Transportation and Environment starting 9:30 am on October 17, 2012 (Wednesday), Council will hear a report from the City’s general manager of Engineering Services, entitled Food Scraps Diversion Update & Full Phase 2 Implementation.
Report (PDF format): CoV Food Scraps Phase 2 implementation, ptec, 17-Oct-2012
An article by Mike Howell on the food scraps topic is in the Vancouver Courier (15-Oct-2012), entitled “Vancouver ramps up food-scrap collection: Staff report recommends up to $10.4 million for program costs.”
October 17, 2012
Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver City Council,
The search for sound strategies to deal with food scraps is a powerful opportunity for Vancouver to advance the Greenest City Action Plan and the goal of being the world’s greenest city by 2020. In this context, have staff considerations and recommendations gone far enough yet?
The Engineering Services Department is recommending that City Council invest over $10 million of taxpayers’ money now for infrastructure, systems and communications related to food scraps diversion from the landfill, and to commit millions more to annual operating costs in the future. Any decision now will have implications for many years ahead, and as we all know, once physical infrastructure, organizational systems, and service contracts have been put into place, they can be challenging and costly to change.
Is it enough for Vancouver to emphasize waste “diversion” – keeping something out of the landfill? What if we turned this upside down and looked at it from the other direction — How can Vancouver make the smartest use of the precious nutrient and other resources contained in food scraps?
Has Vancouver given adequate consideration to various models for handling food scraps? At public forums organized by the West End Neighbourhood Food Network in June and September 2012, master’s researcher Liz Blakeway pointed out that there are three critical stages in consideration of food scraps. Paraphrased, they are the (1)source/collection of food scraps, (2) processing (into compost or other by-products), and (3) use of the output (compost). Ecologically-speaking the ideal system to handle food scraps might be “on-site, on-site, on-site” (i.e., food scraps collected on a property, processed on that property, and compost used on that property). Numerous models and their hybrids exist. (Real examples already being tested in Vancouver are indicated further below.) Has the City really looked carefully enough at the options and implications at each of the critical stages?
Such lines of questioning might produce very different results for Vancouver’s regulations, infrastructure and systems design, civic finances, and more.
Before you make final commitments to infrastructure plans, we encourage City Council to dig deeper, ensure that City Hall has adequately considered the various models and options, and ask some fundamental questions, such as those provided below (applicability of each question may differ when considering single-family, multi-family, commercial or other sectors). Perhaps these will be helpful in the near future as staff investigate and Council considers expanding the food scraps program from single-family to multi-family, all residential, commercial, industrial and institutional sectors.
What is the emphasis and ultimate goal?
- Is the goal waste diversion? Is it to create a sound food system and food cycle? Or something else? We must be conscious of where our emphasis is placed when designing the systems.
- The City’s current thinking and policy emphasis appears to be on collection of food scraps. But is it enough to simply to divert food scraps from the landfill? What about focusing on capturing nutrients in food and returning them to the food cycle?
- Does the proposed system fit for a city that aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020?
Financial aspects (costs, savings, revenues)
- For the proposed system(s) and alternative models, can staff provide comparisons of the total financial costs (operating and capital) to the City, and also indicate (or at least show consideration of) costs to each player (e.g., individual rental or strata buildings) when mandatory food scraps diversion is introduced?
- Since 40% of the waste stream is currently organic waste (by weight), if organic waste is diverted, will this not reduce the operating and infrastructure costs of collection/transporting non-organic waste? Will this not result in savings? Don’t the two partially cancel each other (increased cost for organics, reduced cost for non-organic waste)? Has this cancellation effect been adequately considered in financial analysis by the City?
- Has the City looked at future revenue potential from organic waste – carbon credits (from reducing GHG emissions), sales of methane as a fuel, sales of various grades of compost? Could this revenue not offset costs of food scraps collection/processing?
- Has the staff report provided adequate consideration of these aspects?
Employment and economic potential
- Has the City considered the opportunity to create new employment within communities from collection and processing of food scraps, and distribution of the byproducts?
- Has the City examined the employment implications (increases and decreases) and compared the different models for dealing with food scraps? Community-based systems could create green jobs at the local level.
- Has the City considered the economic potential of introducing new technologies at the local or neighbourhood level? For example, small-scale methane gas digesters to process food scraps – these are used in other countries.
Ecological and health aspects
- Has the City really looked carefully at and compared the total ecological impacts of each model for handling food scraps? It would be helpful to summarize the models and quantification of impacts in a table. Examples include climate impacts (greenhouse gas emissions at each stage of collection/processing, etc.), methane from waste decomposition, emissions from pickup and delivery trucks, health impacts of vehicle emissions, increased truck traffic and noise.
Road traffic implications
- What will be the traffic implications of the “big trucks” model for food scraps collection if more trucks will be running on streets and lanes? Have staff quantified or at least considered the increased truck traffic from this model and compared with alternative models for handling food scraps?
- Beyond the food scraps collection trials mentioned in the report, have citizens and communities been adequately consulted in the formulation of food scraps policy? To our knowledge, there has been no other outreach targeting neighbourhoods, groups, and citizens to seek input on food scraps-related systems. Yet, success of a city-wide roll-out in each sector (e.g., multi-unit buildings) will require good communication and cooperation in those sectors.
- The report mentions that there are about 50,000 backyard composters in Vancouver, but has the City taken the time to do a well-considered evaluation of alternative models such as onsite composting, Food Scraps Drop Spots, community-based composting, and more? The quality of material going in varies dramatically depending on the approach taken.
- Could multiple models co-exist, giving citizens options based on their level of motivation?
- Can the City consider an integrated policy that actively encourages diversity of models, by prioritizing and encouraging the most ecologically-friendly approaches first, and then using the “big trucks” City and commercial truck hauling as one of the final options?
Regional and Global best practices
- How does Vancouver’s proposed system compare with those of other municipalities in the Metro Vancouver region? Can we get a more detailed analysis and comparison? Can Vancouver innovate and show leadership to other municipalities? For ease of public communications and citizen “buy-in” has the City adequately considered integration and synergistic effects by working closely with other municipalities?
- Are global best practices adequately considered in developing Vancouver’s system?
Material flow analysis
- Does the city actually need to expand the waste transfer station? Perhaps not? With food scraps diversion, the total amount of waste handled should not increase. It would remove the organics (currently 40% of the waste stream), leaving the remaining 60% for the landfill. The organic 40 percent is not a new amount of material, so can the city not simply re-purpose or reallocate sections of the current transfer station facilities? Is such a large capital investment required as what is being proposed?
Perhaps some of these questions will resonate with you and you may wish to direct the appropriate City departments to come back with responses at a later date for future reports. It appears that the current report was written through the lens of engineering (Engineering Services Department). Has there been enough involvement and consideration of sustainability (Sustainability Office) or community perspectives (Community Services Department) in the drafting of the staff report and development of policy for food scraps? Can a future report from staff integrate the perspectives and expertise of those departments?
Regarding alternative models for dealing with food scraps, the Mole Hill Community Housing Society in the West End is now operating an “on-site, on-site, on-site” system. One type of hybrid system already being tested successfully in Vancouver is Food Scraps Drop Spots – with scraps delivered by residents to a central location within walking distance at a designated time, then transported by truck to a commercial processing facility to produce compost. Under that model, volunteers at several few locations (Vancouver Farmers Markets, West End Community Centre, Olympic Village, Gordon Neighbourhood House, etc.) in Vancouver in 2011 and 2012, in cooperation with Recycling Alternative, have attracted thousands of citizens to the weekly drop spots, and have diverted many tons of high quality food scraps (i.e., not mixed with low quality yard trimmings). These are just a few of the several models possible and already being tested in Vancouver. (None of these were referenced in the staff report.) Before making final decisions, can City Council request that staff review and compare all of the neighbourhood-based and citizen-based models already under way in Vancouver?
In conclusion, the primary model for handling food scraps being considered by the City of Vancouver appears to be going further along the “big trucks” default path of having large fossil-fuel burning trucks picking up organic food waste at each building, transporting it by road to a central location, mixing it with yard waste and other low-quality organic material, composting it at large commercial facilities, using energy-intensive processing to produce low-quality compost most suitable for landscaping (rather than food production), and then transporting the compost by truck to where it will be sold and/or used. Maybe that approach is the most practical and realistic for a city to implement and enforce. But maybe Vancouver can do better.
Right now, Vancouver has the opportunity for a deeper discussion of the kind one would expect of a city seeking to be the world’s greenest by 2020. Can we see a more comprehensive discussion and comparison of different models, a detailed analysis of the total ecological footprint and greenhouse gas emissions of each model, and perhaps a phased approach with short-term and long-term objectives and actions?