The smelly side of environmentalism: B.C. city plagued by compost ‘stink’

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Composting has been officially a good thing for some time and now we're being encouraged to dump our food scraps in with the yard waste to feed our cities' big composting operations.

But the people who live near those plants are paying the price for our environmental good-guyishness. Because when organic matter biodegrades, it stinks.

Residents of Richmond, a Vancouver suburb, have been complaining about the odour from the Harvest Power Canada Ltd. composting plant, which services Metro Vancouver and other municipalities in the region, the Globe and Mail reports.

Metro Vancouver's manager of environmental regulation and enforcement, Ray Robb, told the Vancouver Sun last month that there have been "dramatically more" odour-related complains this year.

"It's really quite a nauseating smell," Richmond resident Angela Burnett told the Sun, who described the odour as rotting vegetables with the "acrid undertone of chemicals."

The U.S.-owned operation is acknowledging the problem but says its due to more food leftovers coming into the facility than it can handle right now.

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"We recognize we have a problem right now and have some odour issues at our facility," Harvest Power regional vice-president Jeff Leech told the Globe.

"But we've had an influx of the food-waste process and we found that it was coming in faster than we could get it ready to get into our energy garden, which is ultimately where it is all going to go."

Jan Allen, the company's vice-president of quality and engineering, explained the energy garden is a small-scale power plant, an enclosed facility that produces compost in an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment and generates electricity from the process's heat and methane byproducts. It began operating in November to supplement the site's existing composting operations.

Allen said the stink is not coming from ordinary kitchen scraps.

"It's the high-calorie commercial food waste from restaurants, grocery stores and food processors," Allen told the Globe. "That business component is much richer than the residential because [homeowners' waste] is commingled with stuff like lawn clippings."

Leech said it's tackling the odour issue by upgrading equipment and sending staff to investigate complaints.

"We have a guy we call our sniffer," said Leech. "When we get an odour complaint, he goes to the area where the complaint came from and documents what he's smelling, if anything. We are totally committed to fixing this."

The opening of an "anaerobic digestion facility" in the coming months, diverting some of the smelliest material to an indoor system, will significantly reduce the stink, Leech told the Sun.

Residents of suburban Victoria have also been wrestling with the impact of large-scale composting.

A public hearing is scheduled for Central Saanich next week to get feedback on a proposed bylaw change that would allow landowners to sell half the compost generated on their farms instead of using it on the property, the Victoria Times Colonist reported.

The municipality already hosts a commercial composting facility, which generates its share of smell complaints. There are concerns the bylaw change could spur creation of more plants.

In London, Ont., the local composting plant was hit last summer with 24 counts of breaching Ontario's Environmental Protection Act. Many of the charges are related to smell complaints, the London Free Press reported.

And the Edmonton Journal reported in September that operators of the Cleanit Greenit plant is promising residents living near its operation that it will address smells so bad some people say they've been forced indoors. Complaints have mushroomed as the the facility's three-storey mountain of compost material has grown.

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"Sometimes it smells like an outhouse, sometimes like silage, like rotting and fermenting organic matter," resident June McNeil told the Journal.

"This summer it was really terrible, the worst ever. Nobody could eat outside, sit outside. Summer in our neighbourhood was ruined."