Thursday, June 26, 2008

Money In Composting

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Many Montrealers know that composting their organic waste could reduce the amount of garbage they send to the dump by about one-third.

And many of us are ready and willing to separate our food and garden waste from other garbage, but Montreal still does not offer an organic waste collection program. You can do it yourself, of course, but many residents don't have backyards and gardens in which to store the waste and spread the resulting compost.

That's why Stephen McLeod decided to take the organic matter into his own hands.

Last summer, McLeod started an organic waste pickup service, charging clients $5 a week to pick up and properly dispose of their table scraps and garden wastes. The service, called Compost Montreal, has almost 100 clients in St. Henri, the Plateau and Notre Dame de Grâce.

McLeod, who also runs an eco-friendly messenger service, realized there might be a demand for a composting service when he moved from Ontario to St. Henri and was looking for a way to dispose of his own organic waste. He found out there was a community compost bin at his neighbourhood Éco-quartier.

(Éco-quartiers are local environment groups commissioned by the city of Montreal to promote recycling, composting, lane cleanup operations and other embellishment campaigns. Several of them run small composting operations.)

But after making a few trips to the Louis Cyr Éco-quartier to dump his bucket of organic waste, McLeod realized it made no environmental or economic sense to have all these people driving their small quantities of waste to Éco-quartiers all around the city.

"I did that a few times before I said to myself, 'This is crazy. How many people are going to do this? I'm sure there are a lot of people who want to compost, but not very many who are willing to do this.' "

So McLeod asked around and quickly found several environmentally conscious neighbours willing to pay him $5 a week to cart off their compostable waste. McLeod bought himself a trailer for his bicycle and a big garbage can in which to collect the waste, and began his door-to-door pick-up service last July.

He got used food containers with sealable lids from the Dawson College cafeteria and distributed them to his customers, to whom he also gave compostable cornstarch bags to line the bins.

Within a few weeks, he had 18 customers, enough to fill his garbage can weekly. With winter coming and word getting out about the service, McLeod decided he had to expand his service. He got a partner and a pickup truck, and worked out an arrangement with the city's parks and horticultural department to dump organic waste at its compost facility in the Southwest borough.

Now he is looking into trading the pickup for a truck equipped to use diesel fuel, which can then be adapted to run on vegetable oil.

He's not making a lot of money with the business, but McLeod said he enjoys it and hopes he can make it work for a while, at least until the city gets a program going.

"It's a very pleasant kind of business because you are dealing with individuals who are doing this because they have an environmental conscience," he said.

"They feel responsible for disposing of the waste they create, and they're doing it happily. People are constantly saying thank you to us."

McLeod isn't doing this to embarrass the city administration, but if it puts pressure on them to get moving on the composting issue, all the better, he said.

Alan deSousa, the city of Montreal executive committee member responsible for environmental issues, applauds McLeod's initiative.

DeSousa says the city administration is chomping at the bit to get a compost collection program going, but a full-scale program costs a lot of money and takes time to plan.

The Montreal Metropolitan Community, the regional body responsible for waste management planning for Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and North and South Shore municipalities, has proposed a $170-million organic waste collection and composting program for the region. The region wants the province to cover 85 per cent of the cost, while municipalities pick up the rest.

Besides the cost, there is also the thorny question of where to build compost facilities.

"I can't launch into something for 400,000 people unless I know where (the waste) is going to go," DeSousa said.

He said the city has no problem with entrepreneurs filling the service gap in the meantime.

"When the city is ready to offer this service, it will do so, but in the meantime if this responds to people's needs and their concerns for the environment, it's fantastic," he said.

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