Is Western willing to get its hands dirty in the name of environmental sustainability? The aptly named panel of environmental whistleblowers and waste management experts, “Can London get down and dirty?”, aims to answer this question, looking at the barriers to a municipal and campus-wide compost system.
An annual panel is presented by Western University’s graduate specialization in environment and sustainability students in North Campus Building. This specialization is a collection of graduate students from a range of disciplines, from geography to Hispanic studies to engineering, with the common goal of promoting environmental sustainability through graduate education and research seminars.
Paul Mensink, the chair for graduate specialization in environment and sustainability, explains that this year’s panel coincides with a pilot project to implement a campus compost system. Still in its grassroots stages, the project will be field-tested within North Campus Building just before the holiday break. By adding a disposal bin for organic waste in a limited area, the researchers will be able to track potential contamination of waste and how effective the bins could be on a larger scale.
In a previous study, researchers found that 40 per cent of the waste collected on campus is organic waste. Food waste that enters landfills is unable to break down completely and produce positive byproducts like nutrient-rich soil. Instead, the food waste produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Mensink explains this pilot project stems from a long line of environmental history, referencing a University of Toronto study conducted by Pollution Probe to promote province-wide recycling. By trying out the service on a small scale, they were able to demonstrate how effective the program would be on a larger scale.
“The initial thing they were doing was going around picking up recycling; the first thing they did was phone books. So, they collected phone books and recycled those,” he explains. “The whole thing was showing the city that this works and that there’s somebody on the other side who wants recyclable goods.”
Mensink emphasizes the need for municipal participation to inspire collective action.
“Individual people composting in their backyard is good — it sets an example, it makes them mindful of [waste], but we’re on a time clock here that’s shortening rapidly,” he urges. “We need to make big-step changes rather than small individual efforts. As a collective, we can push the city and help the city develop this.”
Involvement from the city is the reason that the panel features a wide variety of environmentalists, from Ivey Business School professor Deishin Lee, who presented her expertise on business-friendly environmentalism, to Jay Stanford, the director of environmental programs and solid waste for the City of London, who is focusing on reducing food waste city-wide before turning to compost. Coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions, the panelists discussed the major potential barriers to implementing a municipal compost system: cost, odour and the logistics of enforcing this new system.
Panelist Terra Fielder works in public relations and communication with Waste Management Canada. She explains the other side of the argument, saying that although the company is committed to reducing food waste in landfills, there must be an incentive for private investors. Cost is the largest barrier for businesses to overcome in order to support a municipal, or even province-wide, compost system.
Cost is also a concern for homeowners in London, as a green bin system is predicted to cost around $5 million a year to operate. When distributed equally, however, this becomes approximately $30 per household — less than what most people spend on a mobile phone per month, Stanford points out.
Challenges like odour and enforcement are more difficult to overcome. After a series of complaints from residents specifically pertaining to odour, London composting plant Orgaworld has been fined over $1 million in reparations to the government and complainants . Although Orgaworld has reworked their systems to now monitor the smell, these complaints show the community's hesitation towards a local organics processing plant.
Ultimately, the panel concludes, there must be incentives put into place for businesses, residences and the government. Education about these issues must start at a young age, as the panelists explain that enforcement of a new system like composting takes a complete shift in behavioural patterns and thinking.
A municipal and campus-wide compost system is only perhaps achievable if people are willing to find incentives that outweigh the costs of dealing with organic waste — even if that involves getting down and dirty.