NL·From The Ground Up

Community composting comes to St. John's with plans to expand

A small-scale composting program is underway in one St. John's neighbourhood, in an effort to tackle organic waste that organizers hope provides a blueprint for other parts of the city to follow.

Georgestown pilot project already at maximum capacity

Viviana Ramirez Luna, the community composting project lead, empties kitchen scraps into one of the compost bins. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

From the Ground Up is a CBC series, in collaboration with the Food Producers Forum, that looks at how small-scale growers are digging and dreaming agricultural innovations in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

A small-scale composting program is underway in one St. John's neighbourhood, in an effort to tackle organic waste that organizers hope provides a blueprint for other parts of the city to follow.

The Georgestown Community Compost program looks unassuming from where it sits by Bonaventure Avenue, with three metal rotating composter bins set up on the grounds of Kings Gate condos, at its community garden. But it's the result of more than a year of hard work between multiple organizations to make happen.

"Initially, it felt like a huge task," said project lead Viviana Ramirez Luna, speaking to the CBC in May prior to its launch.

Ramirez Luna had been composting in her own household for years, as part of her own personal efforts toward a low-waste lifestyle. With a citywide compost program still a dream — the City of St. John's put any such plans on hold in 2017 — she came across the concept of community composting, that focuses on small groups of people pooling their kitchen scraps into something more.

"I'm fascinated because it's the whole package," said Ramirez Luna.

Environmentally, community composting diverts some organics from the landfill, she said, and adds in educational and social benefits, as people learn about a second life for their peels and crusts. It's also far cheaper than a large-scale effort that would require curbside collection and a potential industrial processing facility.

The composters are on the grounds of Kings Gate condos, by the Bonaventure Community Garden. An earlier location on city property proved to have too many liability issues, and the condo offered up its space for use instead. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

A team effort

The Georgestown pilot project is a team effort, spearheaded by the Social Justice Co-Op N.L., with Stella's Circle and Planeet Consulting, Ramirez Luna's zero-waste business, also on board.

The project secured funding from the Multi Materials Stewardship Board, the City of St. John's and Food First NL, and then sought out buy-in from the local community.

"A lot of people want to compost but they find that it's too much work, or they don't have the space, or are overwhelmingly concerned about rodents and odours, which is understandable," said Ramirez Luna, explaining that the bins they are using are both rat-proof and stink-proof.

The program is already at its 30-household capacity. "Uptake has been great. People want to do it," she said.

Each household has an organic collection bucket, and were given educational material and an orientation session on what goes into the bins. Most plant-based scraps are fine, but the bins can't handle items like meat, seafood and pet waste.

People empty their own buckets whenever their own schedule suits, and a compost technician hired through the program takes care of rotating the bins from time to time, and adding 'brown material' like leaves to the mix to balance out the composting process. before the final product goes into the local community garden.

That technician was hired through Stella's Circle, a charity in St. John's that helps adults with housing, training and employment services.

Getting involved in composting was "the perfect fit," said Rob McLennan, director of employment services with Stella's Circle, since the charity runs a variety of programs at the community garden in partnership with the condominium.

"It's a catalyst for inclusive activity, that is really lifting up the talents and interests of people. It's great to engage people where they're at," he said.

The technician is getting job experience in an area they're interested in, said McLennan.

"We just find that increasingly there's lots of people that want to become involved in employment that is connected, linked to green outcomes," he said.

Ramirez Luna says figuring out what works, and what doesn't, with the Georgestown pilot project will be key to expanding the program to other city neighbourhoods. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Future growth for kitchen garbage

There are plans to expand the program and offer a similar setups in other neighbourhoods in St. John's, said Ramirez Luna. 

In that process they'll be learning from behind-the-scenes hiccups with the Georgestown program. The initial site turned out to be on city property, causing permitting and liability issues. Kings Gate condo came to the rescue, she said, making part of its property readily accessible to the public and taking on the needed liability insurance itself.

"We want to show that this works, we don't want to upset anyone. These types of bins and programs have been successful in other towns in Newfoundland and Labrador, and other countries and provinces," she said.

With the current program, Ramirez Luna said organizers also hope to identify what works, and what doesn't, before expanding.

"We know there's always those who are motivated to do it, and those who are not, for different reasons. And we also want to learn that, why people are not composting, and how these programs are the solution for that," she said.

Ramirez Luna hopes one day there will be municipal composting, but said community efforts can lead the way.

"This is going to show that we're diverting a lot of organics, that we're creating jobs, and it will be an alternative to large scale city-run composting program, which is going to take a long time."

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With files from Carolyn Stokes