Compostable plastics: The hard-to-break-down facts

Chris-Ann and I picked up Chet at the Compost Education Center in Fernwood on Monday morning. In the car, he told us a little of his background. He was a professor in the States he created a composting program at his university. He has a master’s degree and does some creative writing, and likes to ride his bike to work wearing cowboy boots.

When he and his wife started to think about leaving Arizona, they made a short list of places they’d like to move to, and began to apply for jobs. Victoria was at the top of that list, and then Chet saw the listing for Executive Director of the Victoria Compost Education Centre. As of January 2nd, Chet is the new director of the CEC.

Chris-Ann and Chet at the Malahat lookout

Chris-Ann gave the short version of her resume –  BA in religion and music, university chaplain, Greenpeace organizer , co-manager of Surfrider, and now working on her  MA degree in leadership and organizational change management in social structures.

And I gave mine – a software developer who got to work on a political campaign and got a taste for it. Now I’m working with Surfrider on Rise Above Plastics and trying to unravel the chaotic mess of how waste is dealt with on Vancouver Island.

That got us to the Malahat. We stopped at the viewpoint to look down on Finlayson Arm. It was Chet’s first trip up island. We pointed out the observatory, the airport, and Brentwood Bay marina, wreathed in fog. Our gaze drifted downward to the trash people had thrown over the railing there. “Don’t worry, it’s all compostable”, Chet snarked. Laughing, we got back in the car.

At Coast Environmental, just outside Chemainus, we pulled up to a giant trash compactor. I hopped out of the car and put on a big smile for the gentlemen who were taking their breaks there, eyeballing us with curiosity.

“I’m looking for Jack,” I said. “He’s expecting us. Do you know where I can find him?”

Jack’s office was further into the yard in a portable building. He greeted us and took us inside to get hi-vis vests.

Smell was the concern at the front of Jack’s mind. He showed us the two compost cookers, giant Quonset huts connected by a tunnel. Air is pumped in under the floor boards, heated and forced up through the piles of compost, and sucked out by giant blowers that filter the ripe air through a bio-filter. The bio-filter is basically a huge bed of bark mulch that absorbs the odors. It smells sweet enough to me, so it must be working.

Coast Enviro takes a lot of bio-waste. The stuff in the bottom of the Porta Potties, that’s bio-waste.

Jack has a windsock on a tower above his office and he records wind direction and speed every day. If there’s an odor complaint, he can prove whether it came from his facility or not.

His pride is the wood and drywall recycling and contaminated soil remediation. Soil is remediated using solid bio-waste. That’s sewage, basically. Microbes in it eat the bad stuff and render it harmless.

The manufacturer of the drywall takes it back and recycles it into more drywall. This seems very correct and harmonious to me.

Wood is ground up in a 1200 horsepower wood chipper and used in either decorative bark mulch or compost recipes.

The facility is built on the site of an old sawmill. They have a near-infinite supply of sawdust buried in their back lot. Sawdust is used between layers of food or bio-waste in the composting process. The old sawdust pit from the mill is part of what made this site ideal for composting. If the sawdust wasn’t there, time and labor would have to go to acquiring and processing brush to provide a carbon source for composting.

Island Farms asked them one time to dispose of 2000 gallons of spoiled cracked eggs. Their normal disposal channels wouldn’t work for so much liquid. Jack made a nest in the midst of his mountains of compost and poured in the eggs. It ended up speeding the composting process so much that it became a standard operating procedure.

“But what about plastic?” I finally asked.

“It’s a problem,” Jack said. “I hate the stuff.”

Jack doesn’t accept plastic. Sometimes he holds onto it briefly and gives it to Emterra, who send it to the US. “Where in the US?” I asked.

“Don’t know.”

“What company takes it?”

“Don’t know.”

“What about compostable plastics?” I asked. This was the question we were actually here for.

“Well, they just don’t compost!” Jack laughed.

He expanded further, leading us into the Quonset huts. Mountains of dirt rose into a fog so thick you couldn’t see the far end of the building. He explained that the fog was just steam released as the compost material cooked and aerated.

Inside the composter

The compost recipe is designed to heat the compost up to at least 55˚C, the “magic” temperature in high heat composting to ensure potential pathogens and weed seeds are killed. All the air in the building is exchanged through the blowers several times per hour. It cooks for a few weeks, then they shake out any material that hasn’t decomposed yet and give it another cycle. Usually the “compostable” forks, bags and straws take several laps through the cooker. Anything that remains intact after three or four cycles goes to landfill.

“What do you do if you get a load that’s mostly compostable plastic?” I asked.

He’ll let the recycling companies know his capacity, and tells them not to bring it if it’s over his limit. There’s a cost to running a load of compost through the cycle over and over again. Regular food waste breaks down on the first run, so waiting for the plastic to decompose as well is a waste of time. In that case, the stuff ends up in Hartland landfill. That’s the only place for it.

At the end of the tour, Jack showed us his computerized system for controlling and monitoring the compost piles, and one of his staff joined us.

“We have to stop making all this plastic shit,” the man said. “We’re drowning in it. No one wants it, and it’s going to eat the earth and leave nothing for our grandkids.”

We nodded soberly and shook his hand as we filed out.

It was the right moment to make the big ask. I explained our awkward situation in Victoria. The city is planning to add more single-use plastic products to our existing plastic bag ban, as part of a long term zero-waste strategy. We want them to include compostables, and the city is tacitly on board with this – thanks to Marika Smith, Chet’s predecessor at the CEC and current Waste Management Specialist at the City of Victoria.

However, in the past couple of years, local businesses have replaced their plastic serving utensils with compostable plastic ones. It’s everywhere, with the purest of intentions.

You can see that everyone is trying to do the right thing. It was only when another Surfrider volunteer, Ali Ruddy, started to dig for information, that we learned how inadequate compostable plastics are.

We now have to explain that these products are not helping, and in fact are making the problem worse. The stuff does not break down in the green bin in your backyard – it often doesn’t even break down in the industrial facility. More often than not, it ends up in the landfill or in the ocean.

“We want to start a conversation about this in Victoria, because nobody knows about this. We’re going to do some talks in March and we need speakers. Can you come speak?”

Jack firmly agreed, and Chet offered that the CEC can also help with public outreach and education. With sincere thanks, we said goodbye and drove back to Victoria.

Finalyson Arm from the top of the Hat