As gardeners have long known, food scraps can be turned into rich, soil-restoring compost.
And as some Richmond residents would attest, that process can generate a stink.
Over the past few months, Metro Vancouver officials have logged dozens of complaints about smells, with many traced to Harvest Power Canada Ltd.,
a Richmond facility that composts food waste from several municipalities, including Vancouver.
Formerly known as Fraser Richmond Soil and Fibre Ltd., the operation is a division of Massachusetts-based Harvest Power Inc., which runs organics-processing sites in Canada and the United States.
The centrepiece is what Harvest Power calls its "energy garden," an enclosed anaerobic (without oxygen) facility that produces compost and generates electricity through capturing heat and methane. The energy garden began operating in November, supplementing composting operations already on the site.
Under a contract from Metro Vancouver since 2008, Harvest Power handles "source-separated organics" – yard waste, food waste and soiled paper such as plates, wrappers and cups – for municipalities throughout the Lower Mainland. That material will be banned from garbage by 2015. It is estimated that food waste accounts for about 20 per cent of what goes into the garbage.
As commercial food waste volumes increase, Harvest Power has had problems getting its energy garden running smoothly, as well as with its conventional compost operations.
The Globe and Mail spoke to regional vice-president Jeff Leech and Jan Allen, Harvest Power's vice-president of quality and engineering.
Richmond residents have been complaining about smells from your facility. What is going on?
Jeff Leech: We recognize we have a problem right now and have some odour issues at our facility. 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.
What's the energy garden?
Jan Allen: It's our term for a small-scale power plant. We call it an energy garden to draw some connection with terms like wind farm or solar farm. We are trying to raise people's awareness that we can take urban organic materials – like food scraps, soiled paper and grass clippings – and within the urban area, convert those materials to energy.
What's causing the odour problems and what can you do about it?
Allen: It is not your kitchen scraps that has been an odour problem – it's the high-calorie commercial food waste from restaurants, grocery stores and food processors. That business component is much richer than the residential because [homeowners' waste] is commingled with stuff like lawn clippings.
Does that make it smellier? Why?
Allen: It is smellier. It has more protein, more sugar. And it doesn't have any yard waste in it. [The dense, fatty qualities of commercial food waste was a key reason Harvest Power decided to build an anaerobic system, with the idea of turning potentially stinky gases into electricity.]
What are you doing about the odour concerns?
Leech: We are increasing and upgrading our bio-filter capacity [holding areas on the site]. We have done a facility-wide emissions and audit program. We have also installed some additional odour control and modelling systems. So we can see where the wind is blowing and send our people to investigate complaints. We have a guy we call our sniffer. 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.
How much volume do you expect to handle this year?
Leech: 190,000 tonnes. We have seen a steady increase over the last three years and this will be the highest.
How do you make money?
Allen: The tipping fee [to dispose of garbage at Metro Vancouver facilities] is $107 a tonne. Our fee is about half that. Even though it's expensive to do what we are doing, and we have to compete for this material, we can do this for less than the cost of disposal. We sell a beautiful soil product. The gardening community is a huge part of our success. If we can't sell our soil back to gardeners and farmers, then our sustainability model is weak. We also get a revenue stream by selling electricity to BC Hydro.