Environmental Enlightenment

In this age of climate change and increased focus on environmental stewardship, what can cities learn from the universities within their own community?

Compostable products bring us one step closer to a more environmentally harmonized world. Universities across the country have adopted them, so will their municipalities be inspired to get on board too?

Universities are considered pillars of knowledge and innovation – and for good reason. They house some of the most advanced research centres in the world and the testing that occurs there is subject to intense scrutiny and peer-review, making the results that are found extremely reliable. This makes it interesting when the findings that a university comes across are in opposition to those of the cities around it. One example of this is in the case of disposing of certified compostable bags – it seems to be the case in a few Canadian cities that the curbside collection program does not accept certified compostable bags while universities in the same cities do. So does the city council know something that the universities don’t? Or is it the other way around?

One example of this is in Montreal. The city of Montreal banned single-use plastics back in January of 2018, a fantastic move for the environment and far ahead of the upcoming federal ban. Unfortunately however, the bylaw banning single-use plastics contains what can only be described as misinformation. Along with traditional plastics, biodegradable and oxo-degradable bags were also banned, with no mention of compostable bags. Okay…. seems like a good move so far. The issue is in the definition of “biodegradable bag”, which in the bylaw is termed any “bag that can be decomposed by microorganisms, resulting in the formation of water, carbon dioxide, inorganic compounds and biomass that are non-toxic for the environment”. Huh?!? “Non-toxic”, isn’t that a good thing? Uh oh something isn’t adding up here. If you’ve become savvy with compostables, you might recognize the issue here: this describes compostable bags too. While most biodegradable bags that are not certified compostable break down into microplastics that actually ARE toxic for the environment, this definition specifies non-toxic byproducts, which is what certified compostable bags become over time. The City of Montreal was clear in what they were banning as far as specific items. However with this definition it has become very confusing and does it mean that certified compostable bags were lumped in with biodegradables and were banned along with them? Not ideal if that is the intention, not to mention extremely confusing.

Meanwhile, the University of Concordia, located in Montreal, utilizes compost bins in all of their food-related spaces. These bins accept not only compostable bags, but even compostable cutlery, which is much harder to compost since it is a harder thicker product. The university utilizes both on- and off-site composting. Any groups, clubs, and departments that request it will receive a small composter that they can use to process their own food scraps and utilize the nutrient-rich product for their own practices. The university also sends a large portion of the food scraps that they collect off-campus to an independent company that handles the composting. This is interesting because it would suggest that there is a composting facility (or at the very least a collections company) that is willing and able to process certified compostables in the city of Montreal. This raises the question of why the city has created this confusion by their definition of what they have banned – what seems to be compostable bags in the first place.

Another example of this strange phenomenon is in Vancouver, BC. In this case, the way the bylaw is presented is that compostable bags are actually lumped in with plastic bags. The bylaw defines a “plastic shopping bag” as “​​a shopping bag made wholly or partially from either plastic derived from fossil fuels or plastic derived from biomass, including but not limited to corn, sugarcane or other plants”. This is obviously problematic because it completely disregards the differences between traditional plastic made from fossil fuels and certified compostable plastic made primarily from plant starches, the most important of these differences being the end-of-life impacts of the two materials. While plastics take an estimated 450 years to decompose in the natural environment, certified compostable plastic bags generally take between 3 and 6 months to break down into nontoxic byproducts. And let’s be clear, this means no fragmenting and microplastics as well when it’s a certified compostable product. Pretty big difference if you ask us, and certainly worth making a distinction between the two when it comes to legislation.

At the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, however, dealing with certified compostable products is no problem. The university utilizes multicoloured waste bins that are separated into garbage, paper recycling, container recycling, and composting, making it easy for staff and students to separate their waste items right at the source. They even include helpful signs on the bins that tell you what goes where, reducing the possibility of compost and recycling contamination. From there, the compost is processed right on campus and used to support the university gardens, an excellent example of closed-loop composting and a circular economy. According to the UBC website, “by keeping plastic out of the food scraps stream, it allows us to turn the 5 tonnes of organic waste UBC produces daily into a clean compost”. If this wasn’t enough already, the university has incentivised proper sorting of waste through the Sort It Out online game, which allows students to test their knowledge of where waste goes and gives them the chance to win a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore. This is a very good example of forward thinking, backed by research and resulting in great success.

While we all do our best to trust our government, sometimes it can be difficult, especially when their decisions directly contradict those of top educational institutions. Ultimately, it’s up to us to decide what we think is best and make choices based on that. However, it’s challenging to make the right choice when the options that truly can solve our problems are being misunderstood. So this makes us wonder, who is making these decisions and where is the influencing misinformation coming from? Is it composting facilities that just refuse to get with the times and manage their organic waste better? Or is it coming from other sources? Clearly these decision makers are not asking the innovative researchers that are working in the trenches of new ideas – the universities in their own backyards.

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