Yes, in my backyard: Vancouver turns scraps, yard trimmings into energy

The Canadian city of Vancouver aspires to be Earth's greenest city within a decade.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

The city of Vancouver is experimenting with an expanded program intended to help divert food scraps from landfills, instead using an organics recycling technology developed by Harvest Power.

That technology takes organic waste materials, including food waste and various yard trimmings, and breaks it down by the process of anaerobic digestion, creating renewable energy in the form of biogas and other materials that can be used for agricultural purposes.

Bob McLennan, an engineer in the waste management branch for the city of Vancouver, says the high-level goal of the program is to divert more materials from landfill and incineration facilities. The city actually has been promoting backyard composting for almost 20 years, he says, on its drive to become the greenest city on earth by 2020. The development of a nearby Harvest-owned organic waste recycling facility to help process what is collected has been instrumental in helping Vancouver expand that program, he said.

"The reason that municipal food scrap programs haven't caught on more is because there haven't been enough facilities to accept food waste," he says.

The technology at the plant being used by Vancouver is scheduled to handle up to 30,000 tons of organic waste per year by the first quarter of 2011, according to Paul Sellew, CEO and founder of Harvest. The biogas created by that waste will be used to power the facility; the rest will be marketed back into the local region as appropriate. We're talking about approximately 3 megawatts of power. As I mentioned before, the waste also produces soil additives that can be used for agricultural purposes, which is pretty much what you would expect. So the facility gets stuff to sell and the city of Vancouver gets rid of banana peels, apple rinks, grass and meat trimmings, etc.

McLennan says another big hurdle to food scrap recycling is cultural: Many people see it as messy or unsanitary, so the city is focusing on providing tips on how to make it as clean and easy as possible. Roughly half the population in the area are composting, although the Vancouver is limited to single-family residences right now.

Right now, the food scraps and yard trimmings are collected every other week. The goal, however, is to introduce weekly collections. This, in turn, will mean that the city plans in the future to offer garbage collection on a biweekly (instead of weekly) basis. So, it won't be collecting more frequently to accommodate the program, it will just be changing the nature of what it collects week to week.

Sellew says there are about 200 facilities like Harvest's around the world, but his company's is the first in North America. But as legislation makes garbage collection and disposal more costly, he believes economic factors will make plants like his more viable. "With higher disposal fees coming, it is worthwhile to separate out the food waste," he says.

Photo: Peter Andersen/Tourism Vancouver

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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