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Editorial: A big hole in compost plan

After we carefully separate our kitchen scraps so they can be taken to a composting plant, there is a 50 per cent chance they will instead end up in the garbage dump. No, we’re not supposed to call it a dump; it’s a landfill.

After we carefully separate our kitchen scraps so they can be taken to a composting plant, there is a 50 per cent chance they will instead end up in the garbage dump.

No, we’re not supposed to call it a dump; it’s a landfill. But after this week’s news from the Capital Regional District, “dump” sounds much more accurate.

Residents of Greater Victoria have enthusiastically embraced the new kitchen scraps program, which is designed to extend the life of the Hartland landfill until 2047. As of 2015, kitchen scraps will be banned from the landfill.

In the city of Victoria, the amount of waste going to Hartland dropped by 37 per cent in the first three months of the program, proving that city residents were being diligent in separating their meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from their vacuum bags, rubber bands, hair and diapers. That’s 400 tonnes, or 6.5 tonnes a day, kept out of the landfill and — theoretically — sent for composting.

“Theoretically” because it turns out that the CRD can only find processing facilities for just over half of the 30,000 tonnes of scraps per year that are expected by 2015.

Municipalities spent millions on trucks and collection bins. They started effective public-education campaigns that built on Victorians’ well-known concern for the environment. People who did their own composting were generally happy to hand over the responsibility. Those who hadn’t composted had an easy way to switch.

Everything was in place everywhere down the chain — except at the end.

The plan relied on the private sector stepping up to build enough composting plants to handle the scraps. That didn’t happen.

Foundation Organics in Central Saanich was taking some of the scraps, but after repeated complaints from neighbours about the smell, the CRD temporarily suspended its contract and then its recycling licence. Foundation has appealed the decisions. Another facility is planned in Central Saanich, but it’s not running yet.

Some scraps are being trucked to facilities up-Island, but the rest is going into the landfill, which is not what anyone bargained for.

To deal with the problem, CRD staff recommend storing the scraps in a $200,000 pit at Hartland, which would have a “geotextile liner, leachate collection, clay capping and odour management.” It would cost $600,000 a year to operate the site. The scraps would stay there until composting facilities were available, when the remaining mess would be dug up and shipped off for processing.

Fortunately, CRD directors said no on Wednesday. Anything that can’t be composted will continue to be dumped in the landfill, they ruled. That saves taxpayers some money, but undermines the whole point of the composting plan. And it doesn’t explain why we embarked on this project without having a guarantee that there would be enough plants to handle the material.

As the Central Saanich debate unfolds, it’s clear that any new composting plants will face increased scrutiny, perhaps enough scrutiny to make investors think of putting their money in some other business.

Without sufficient composting capacity, the efforts of tens of thousands of environmentally responsible citizens will be for nothing. Why separate household waste into its various bins if you know there’s a good chance it will all end up in the landfill anyway?

To succeed, the kitchen-scraps program has to have buy-in from ordinary people. If they become convinced they are wasting their time, the house falls down.

Composting kitchen scraps makes good environmental sense. It will only work if the CRD can restore that final link in the chain and maintain public confidence.

All we’re doing now is burying the regional district’s mistakes.