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Organic Matters

The municipality takes a giant step forward in achieving the goals of Whistler 2020


Story by Mike Crane    


Just south of town, up the Callaghan Valley, lies ground zero of yet another monumental Whistler success story and a legacy that all Whistlerites can be proud of having as part of their community for generations to come.

This site has already drawn visitors from across Canada and beyond, most recently as a field trip for Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference-goers, leaving them envious of the modern amenities that such a small municipality can boast. Words of praise describing the site as inspirational and state-of-the-art have not been uncommon.

If the legacy of the Whistler Olympic Park, which will host the Nordic events for next February's Winter Games comes to mind, then you have gone too far down the road. 

Last December, despite a variety of other projects that comprise the biggest capital budget the Resort Municipality of Whistler has ever seen, Whistler Composting was launched in a leap of faith as a new business unit for the municipality after a time- sensitive opportunity presented itself.

Under pressure to relocate from the original site in Squamish and unable to make the system profitable, Carney's Waste Systems negotiated a contract with the municipality to sell the core of their composting infrastructure, a pair of in-vessel composting systems.

Now owned by the municipality and operated by Carney's Waste Systems and Evergreen Projects under contract, the Callaghan facility came in on budget, despite the time constraints and scale of the project. In early June the first batch of highly fertile, nutrient-rich, top-grade compost became available for sale, and all of the material was immediately purchased through bulk sales to landscapers for venues such as the athletes village.

As the environmental impacts of everything we do intrude on our modern day thoughts this new facility is a major step for Whistler as the community continues to strive to become more sustainable, working towards the goals outlined in Whistler 2020. 

"For a municipality of this size to do this is a monumental step," says compost plant manager Patrick Mulholland, who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the operation. "Communities 10 times the size of Whistler don't do this yet."

Traditionally, as the remnants of everything we consumed were discarded into the landfill, the organic matter (mostly food waste) was denied the chance to break down naturally, lacking the right mix of oxygen, moisture, carbon and nitrogen. The byproduct in a landfill was the steady production of toxic methane gas being belched into the sky, essentially contributing to global warming by absorbing and concentrating solar energy.

South of the border, a group called COOL 2012 - standing for "Compostable Organics Out of Landfills by 2012 - is currently leading a movement to change waste management strategies across the U.S., targeting one of the leading sources of human produced methane gas. Food waste and organics comprise roughly a third of all household waste, not including sewage waste that can be captured at a treatment plant.

There is no Canadian equivalent, although several cities across Canada - starting with Halifax - have started to add food waste collection services. There is a cost involved, but the ability to sell the composted material to landscapers, gardeners, local governments and farmers help cover those costs.

While composting has always made sense from an environmental stance, organic waste is now big business. Small municipalities and large cities alike are looking to cash in on the cost-benefit savings over traditional tipping fees at landfills. As well, large waste management companies can also generate alternative revenue streams through organic management fees or tipping fees, creating jobs while they're in the process of producing an increasingly rare product, nutrient rich soil. Quoting BioCycle magazine: "Environmental benefit calculators prove that composting is the best management option from both economic and environmental perspectives."

Getting down to the business of our composter facility, three streams of waste are utilized including biosolids from our wastewater treatment facility that are rich in nitrogen, organic matter from commercial and residential sources such as food and yard waste, and untreated wood waste from construction projects and the waste transfer station that puts essential carbon into the mix.

At the facility all of the wood is ground into tiny pieces through the on-site industrial wood chipper, then mixed by the master composter with the organic waste and biosolids into batches containing roughly one third of each component - depending on the time of year and humidity in the air. From there the mix is fed on a conveyor belt into the tunnels, where over the course of 14 days the mix is broken down in a oxygen-, moisture- and temperature-controlled environment that exceeds all criteria and standards set for composting facilities in Canada, the United States, the U.K. and Europe.  

Next, the mix is fed into a hopper for curing. Currently that means trucking the waste to Squamish, due to space constraints at the Waste Transfer Station for the final steps of the process.

In Squamish the mix is then cured in a shed and screened in a process that takes roughly four months before it can be prepared into the final Composted Soil Amendment, Garden Blend and Turf Blend being offered for sale closing the recycling loop.

I recently got to tour this state-of-the-art facility with Brian Barnett, the municipality's general manager of environmental services and ask him a few questions along the way.

Pique: What was the total investment on the facility and what are the staffing levels required to operate the facility?

Brian Barnett: The capital costs for Whistler Composting was $13.7 million. We contract the operational labour to Carney's, who employ three full-time staff to run the facility.

Pique: How much volume is the facility handling, and has that increased since opening last December?

Brian: We are currently handling around 50 tonnes a day (which includes organic waste and wood waste) five days a week. During the first couple of months we had start-up conditions allowing us to de-bug the tunnels and get everything running, and in the past couple of months production has increased steadily and has actually surpassed what we had projected.

Pique: Given the cost saving benefits of waste collection fees for commercial operations, are the majority of businesses such as hotels and restaurants now on board with the program?

Brian: We have had a great uptake in the commercial sector with almost everyone eager to get on board and we have worked closely with those who may have been hesitant with the change.

Pique: Has there been a noticeable reduction in the tonnage of Whistlers waste that is shipped to the landfill facility in Washington State?

Brian: Definitely. The 50 tonnes a day, which is largely comprised of food waste, is no longer being transferred to that facility, which will save Whistler residents hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a year, while reducing our environmental impact at the same time.

Pique : Is the landfill in Washington State part of Whistler's long-term solution to garbage disposal requirements?

Brian: No, we have entered into a five year contract at that facility which can be extended if required but preferably we are looking into a closer landfill site and are hoping to adopt the Greater Vancouver solid waste system, who are currently sourcing a long-term disposal option as their current Cache Creek landfill is imminently closing. Once they find an available option to provide long term disposal I suspect that will allow us to get on board with them.

Pique: Can you touch a bit on the composting facilities' role in Whistler 2020?

Brian: It is closely linked with Whistler 2020 as the plan has a solid waste component in it which is all about reducing waste, eventually working towards zero waste.

Pique: What have been the main challenges with the facility so far?

Brian: This was a very large project for the municipality that had to be accelerated for a few reasons. This compost system was being operated down in Squamish and was shut down due to odour problems at the time (which is no longer an issue at the current site due to the newly installed bio filter) so we were faced with a bit of a time pressure as they had to move the facility off that site. And also on the other side we had to accelerate the closure of the Whistler landfill for construction of the athletes village, all while accommodating the very significant capital project of upgrading our wastewater treatment plant, and our water system was going through some major changes.

Pique: What have been the biggest successes of Whistler Composting?

Brian: The project came in on budget while operating better than expected, with the market currently buying all the product we are producing. It is great for the community in terms of supporting Whistler 2020 in significantly reducing our waste while at the same time reducing our costs of trucking garbage all the way down to Washington State and paying a higher tipping fee. If I can use the phrase, "We can save money while saving the environment."

Pique: So there is a cost recovery looking at the cost of the facility versus the cost of transferring the waste down to Washington State?

Brian: Yes, it's more expensive for the municipality to send its waste to the landfill in Washington State than it is to process at our compost facility here. So even though we are operating at a cost-neutral basis, we are saving a large portion of our disposal fees.

The finished product is actually a separate business model on top of that, with the revenue going into reserves in our solid waste utility for doing further recycling initiatives.

With a total of 900 to 1,000 tonnes a month consisting of biosolids, organic waste and wood waste being processed in the Callaghan, that's up to 45 five-tonne trucks per month being diverted from the landfill in Washington State, while also saving space in the landfill, producing a much needed product, and reducing the green house gas emissions associated with transporting the waste by truck and train across the border.

Given that a minimum of 30 per cent of all household waste is organic, with restaurant waste being up to 70 per cent organic, composting reduces something that poses as a significant strain on Mother Nature at all levels. In the end it only makes sense going back to a natural cycle that has been disrupted for decades under the "throw it out and forget about it" or "out of sight out of mind" strategies of past and present waste management policies.

A productive composting program, coupled with an aggressive recycling policy, makes a serious dent on ones impact. By my own estimates I have been able to reduce my garbage by roughly 75 per cent by recycling and using the composter.

For environmentalists it's a success story, but it's still just the beginning. Some believe we need concrete federal legislation that steers consumers towards manufactured goods that contain 100 per cent recyclable materials for the ambitious goal of zero waste to one day become reality.

Businesses are encouraged to get onboard with composting, if they have not enlisted already. The easiest way for residents to get involved is to get a small container with a lid to collect their own organic waste (readily available at several local retailers) and to simply empty it out when passing their nearest waste transfer station in either Function Junction or Nesters.

Residents and businesses can visit www.carneyswaste.com for more information.