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Every City Needs Vancouver's Ban on Food Scraps

To kick off 2015, Vancouver has resolved to eliminate food products from its waste stream entirely.

Image Metro Vancouver
Metro Vancouver

Food rotting away in landfills is the second largest source of methane emissions produced by people.* In the U.S., landfills may account for more than 20 percent of anthropogenic methane, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes landfills a significant source of activity related to climate change, since the the greenhouse potential of methane is 21 times that of mere carbon dioxide or higher.

Wasted food is also a waste of space. Some 30 million tons of food waste wind up in U.S. landfills every year. Food scraps account for 18 percent of the waste stream, the second largest category of municipal waste in the nation, just after paper. The most popular national food craze is most definitely the farm-to-table-to-landfill movement.

And, as this anthropomorphic pile of Canadian spaghetti leftovers will gladly tell you, it doesn't have to be this way.

(Metro Vancouver)

To kick off 2015, Vancouver has resolved to eliminate food scraps from its waste stream entirely. Metro Vancouver spent the better part of last year plastering adorable pictures of googly-eyed food garbage all over the city to prepare it for the ban, which went into effect on January 1.

"Food waste accounts for about 40 percent of our garbage," said Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore back in October. "By removing it from the landfill, we improve our environment and create valuable resources like compost and energy."

Now into its second week, the ban on food scraps has prompted questions from municipalities in the greater Vancouver areas. People are discovering that they are not supposed to use bags for their green-scraps bins, for example, not even biodegradable liners. (Paper bags or newspapers are fine.) The city's businesses and residents have time to sort out questions like these. Strict enforcement of the ban doesn't begin until July.

The new policy isn't an abrupt change, but one that's been building up for years. The City of Vancouver first launched a green-bin program in May 2013, asking single-family homes to adopt the bins to collect their food waste. The program was far from popular, at first: CBC News reported that there were more than 7,000 missed pickups between May and July 2013, spurring more than 4,000 complaints from residents over the program's first three months.

The city's informal green-bin movement dates back even further. Since 2011, the Food Scraps Drop Spot program has served as a pilot collection model for food waste. Daniel Oong, the program coordinator from June 2011 to October 2014, says that the program targeted apartment and condo residents by hosting drop spots for food-waste collection around the city.

"As of November 1, we have collected over 330,500 lbs. of food scraps from more than 48,500 drops—which is more than we ever considered when we were preparing for the pilot project," Oong says in an email.

Vancouver architect Stephanie Coleridge is one of those residents whose apartment building must now comply with the January 1 food-waste ban. There's a green bin in the basement now, she says, along with the garbage and recycling bins. It's far from a challenge to use.

"I grew up with a backyard compost pile and find it's an easy way to deal with organic waste," Coleridge says. "Since the city’s program is run on a much larger scale, the program accepts a greater range of biodegradable material, including protein waste—meat, bones, dairy, etc."

Coleridge says that she keeps food scraps in a bin in her freezer. Even though her apartment comes with a sink disposal unit, she'd just as soon throw scraps in the green bin. (She even sent along a picture of her tidy freezer.)

(Stephanie Coleridge)

"I can empty my bin when it’s full, instead of waiting to take it to an off-site drop spot," Coleridge says. "And I can throw in plant clippings and soil, which previously just ended up in the garbage."

When enforcement of the ban begins in earnest on July, Vancouver-area businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, and residential buildings that contribute too much food waste to the garbage stream will be forced to pay a fine.

As for how enforcement works: Read this amazing article from The Province on Metro Vancouver's disposal-ban inspectors. The story follows Nicole Peers, one of seven inspectors who spot-checks for separation violations at Vancouver's transfer stations and disposal facilities.

(Cherry quote: "She estimates [that food waste has] dropped by 'at least half' in the last four years. That decrease has made today’s transfer stations less stinky than they once were, said Peers, but she does miss the citrusy smell of truckloads of Mandarin oranges dumped following Christmases past.")

(Metro Vancouver)

Mandatory composting isn't completely foreign in the U.S. Back in 2009, San Francisco passed the toughest municipal ordinance on waste separation in the U.S., which includes a green bin for organics. That law has seen results. Yet even in the most liberal precinct in the nation, the program drew predictable complains. "I don’t want the government going through my garbage cans," said a city supervisor who voted against the measure.

A similar outcry greeted Vancouver's green bins. Another cherry quote (from CBC News): "'The lunacy is repugnant!' wrote another [Vancouver] resident. 'Maggots, flies, smell, and hours of cleaning and scrubbing!!! I’m sick of these mandates. And the little green bin dropped at my home is inadequate.'"

Which is to be expected. It's a radical campaign to convince an entire city that food isn't garbage. Just like how it was a radical thought that some trash could be reused.

Correction: This post originally misidentified methane produced by landfills as the number-one source of methane emissions produced by humans. Industry is first. The article has been corrected.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.