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Executive Summary

Plastic contamination in Vancouver organics processing facilities complicates composting processes. Many staff at these facilities have to spend time sorting through compost to remove any plastic contamination, as failing to do so would render the compost undesirable and unsellable. Further complicating this issue is the existence of compostable plastic bags, of which most do not break down completely and therefore have to also be picked out. Following instruction from the Faculty of Land and Food Systems and the City of Vancouver, Group 23 was tasked to investigate the challenges facing the organic waste system and research potential solutions. The group used two main research questions to guide their work: how is plastic contamination entering Vancouver’s organics system and what solutions exist to minimize plastic contamination in these facilities? In addition, the group assessed how this issue affects overall food system sustainability.

To collect data for this report, the group interviewed numerous stakeholders from the local organics management industry and a Denmark-based waste management expert. The group also attended a Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast, where they watched relevant speeches and interviewed additional representatives from organics facilities. In addition, the group read and analyzed many academic research papers.

compostable bags

Through these various methods of data collection, the group had two key findings. Firstly, only one brand of compostable bag actually breaks down completely. Since there is no way of distinguishing a fully compostable bag from a partially compostable or plastic one, compost facilities have to remove all these bags and divert them to the landfill. This ties in as a food security issue as well, as contaminants have to be removed from the soil in order to make it usable to grow crops. Secondly, there is no regulation regarding the appropriate makeup of these compostable bags. This results in the varying levels of biodegradability that we see in the bags currently. This disconnect between policymakers and stakeholders, coupled with consumers’ lack of education surrounding which bags can go in the green bin and which cannot, results in high plastic contamination at organics facilities.

Based on this study, the group has a couple recommendations to tackle the key issues uncovered. First, we recommend promoting the use of reusable materials as a way to decrease our dependence on single-use plastics altogether. Second, we recommend introducing a policy that regulates the composition of these compostable bags, so that only the bags that break down completely are allowed to be marketed as compostable. Complementary to this policy, we also suggest that compostable bags be clearly marked (perhaps by a universal colour) so that organics facilities can differentiate them from single-use plastic bags.


What? So What? Now What? 


Recently, as we neared the end of our project, we realized that widespread use of compostable bags might negatively impact food security. Since 1kg of PLA (the most common compostable plastic) requires 2.65kg of corn to produce (Ghosh, 2014), increased demand for compostable bags would also increase the need for land to grow inputs. Given that biofuel is made from corn, there is already a lot of land being used to grow crops that aren’t intended for food. This, coupled with increasing demand for fuel and land-intensive animal products from now-wealthier developing countries, negatively impacts global food security.

So what?

            When we began this project, we were convinced that compostable bags were an excellent way to reduce plastic contamination in organics facilities while contributing to overall food system security. While widespread use of these bags would help organics processing facilities, it would be counterintuitive to suggest making one part of the food system more sustainable while decreasing the sustainability of another part of the system.

Now what?

            This reinforced in our minds the importance of evaluating potential sustainability improvements in a holistic sense. Due to this turn of events, our group is more aware of how interconnected the food system is, and we will certainly pay closer attention to this in future projects.


Week 10 objectives

  • Keep looking for an email response of our questions to Jacob Simonsen-Danish Waste Association.
  • Leave another message for Anthony Lau of the UBC Faculty of Chemistry and Engineering about the research he is conducting regarding bio-plastic composting that Mateo of Net-Zero Waste spoke of.
  • Continue with research focused on how increases in bio-plastic production using materials from renewable resources such as corn may affect food security.
  • Create a rough draft of the final report for review by the instructors.



At the sustainability breakfast several different stakeholders spoke of composting from their own vantage point within the composting system. We also heard from Malcolm Brodie the mayor of Richmond. He spoke of heading the committee that orchestrated the current composting policy and was listening to the stakeholders explain how he could better target his efforts to assist them. Louise Schwartz from Recycling Alternative spoke about educating the public about sorting waste. Mateo from Net-Zero Waste spoke of the challenges of removing bits of non-composted ‘compostable’ material. He also gave us the contact information to  UBC assistant professor who is conducting research on compostable material.  Brendan Ladner of Smak foods talked of the challenges of acquiring compostable packaging for a restaurant.



Moments of significance-page-001Moment of Significant Change Workshop

In class on Monday, we made a time line of our project starting from early January until now. Here, we mapped out major events and then each graphed our level of happiness corresponding to the events.

At the beginning of the semester we had a bit of trouble finding a way to contribute to the City’s research on plastic bag replacement options until we finally got the idea to assess the viability of compostable bags as an alternative. As you can see from our graph, Kali and Alex were quite affected by this lack of progress whereas Wesley maintained his chipper attitude toward the project regardless.

When we got our mark back for our proposal, we were all quite disappointed as it was a lot lower than anticipated. Although we were  bit frustrated, we pressed on and have been making a solid effort to get good information for the final report. These activities include attending the Community Sustainability Breakfast, interviewing several representatives from various organics processors and academic research.

Another thing to mention is that we had a little bit of group discord as some group members were contributing more than others. We did however talk everything through and we are now stronger together as a group. Sometimes it just takes a bit of conflict to get past the tension, and we have benefitted greatly from this.

Our group has had some trouble really understanding the criteria of the assignments, which has been reflected by our mediocre grades thus far. We do however have a renewed excitement for this project and are dedicating a lot more time to understanding what’s expected of us before diving in to our work.

Going into this project, we were all pretty certain that compostable bags were the obvious alternative to plastic. As we have progressed through our research, it’s become clear that these bags are not quite as viable as initially thought. In Shulman’s paper “Uncertainty in the Learning Environment,” the author discusses a pattern of uncertainty and resolution with these community-based learning initiatives. Our group certainly felt those effects over the weeks, from uncertainly regarding what our project would be, to uncertainty about where we could find valuable, applicable information, to uncertainty regarding our ability to do well on this project. After all three of these moments of doubt, we emerged stronger and all our concerns faded away once we realized our resolution. It’s easy to get stressed out, but we have learned that these stressful moments are actually the ones that spur the most important resolutions which end up contributing the most to the project. For example, when we took on this project, it seemed quite daunting to research especially since there hasn’t been a lot of work done on our topic. Fortunately, we ended up making some good contacts at various organics facilities who provided us with the information we need to properly exhibit this topic.




Describe your groups strategy for successful project completion (the Graceful Dismount)

The scope of our project has changed over the course of the semester. Initially we intended to look at Vancouver’s system as compared to other systems that also diverted organic waste to identify possible solutions for Vancouver, but what we have come to find is that many systems across North America are dealing with a similar problem in a similar manner, and there isn’t a lot to be learned. We have also found that some systems in other parts of the world, Denmark for example, who claim to have less waste than Vancouver, have strategies such as incineration which has other very separate issues, and does not fit the scope of our research..

Another challenge that our group has realized is that there are many different perspectives within the community about what changes would be best and why. Because of this, our project has adapted to try and understand these different perspectives as well as those from the academic community.

Throughout the term, our group has gathered data from both in person and phone interviews, a sustainability community breakfast, email exchanges with city representatives and through research on how the city and academic community are looking at the issues that have been the focus of group 23’s project.

To wrap up we will compare research done individually for the academic and experiential review and compile what we consider to be the most important and relevant information to go into our final report. We will also take note of any gaps in our current research in order to determine whether these gaps are within the scope of our project or if it is something that should be suggested for future research.

Any gaps that we feel fit the scope of our project will be researched in the final weeks, so that our final report provides the city with a complete and relevant report that can be used for future decision making..From all the data gathered, we will also determine as a group, what we think is the best strategy to recommend to the city and where we believe they need to do further research.

 LFS 350 Proposal – Little, Hardy, de Demko

Week 7 Objectives:

  • To complete a phone or in person interview with Recycling Alternatives and ask some of the questions outlined in the appendix of the proposal. This will give us an opportunity to speak/hear from someone who is involved in the compost system and understands the pros and cons of how compostable products are currently being disposed.
  • To attend the monthly Vancouver sustainability breakfast on compostable materials. The city representative, Sarah, who helped us outline our project, suggested this event. It will give us some insight into Vancouver’s current knowledge of compostable products and the strategies used to raise awareness.
  • Will gather a list of municipalities in North America including California, New York, Maine, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Delaware and other nations who have progressive waste disposal legislation.


So far we have conducted two telephone interviews. Our first interview was with a city farmer representing the city of Vancouver via a service called the compost hotline. This is a service for citizens to call and ask questions regarding composting. Maria, from the hotline, gave us the background information about composting that directed our approach to the project. We were able to focus our research on the types of materials that are used to create compostable bags. She also gave us the names of the facilities that conduct composting within the city. The company Harvest Power picks up the vast majority of residential compost throughout the city. A number of smaller independent companies pick up the remainder. She also told us that not all compostable bags break down at the same rates and that Harvest Power doesn’t accept any compostable bags due to this reason.

This lead us to wonder, if the City made a bylaw that said that the bags that composted completely were the only ones that could be used in Vancouver, would Harvest Power switch its position? This question is extremely important as Harvest Power is the major composter for the City. Another challenge that goes along with this would be educating people to always put their bags in the yard trimmings box, how would we change such a long-held consumer habit of throwing bags in the trash?

Our second interview was with Amanda, a representative of Recycling Alternative. This company picks up mainly organic material produced by businesses in metro Vancouver and delivers it to West Coast Lawns and Enviro-Smart compost companies. She informed us that these companies require their clients to use bpi certified compost bag. Recycling Alternative supplies the clients with these bags.


We believe our project highlights the importance of social responsibility and long-term environmental protection, two ideas that are very central to the mission of LFS. As students in this faculty, we all have a common sense of pride in our land and we all aim to protect it in some way or another. This project is enabling us to answer some questions that no one has really answered. Although we understand that this is a small project that probably won’t result in the City turning to using solely compostable bags, we are excited to be able to contribute unique information that may aid in the City’s decision making process. Through this act, we are demonstrating the value of an education that pushes students to be curious and creative in solving environmental issues, like that offered in LFS.

There is a major parallel between this project and the Think&EatGreen@School project that LFS students do in LFS 250. In both projects, students are required to directly contact the stakeholders, thus instilling a sense of maturity and leadership in students. This highlights another important message conveyed to us over our years in LFS: take charge! The fact that students are being put in managerial positions (albeit on a small scale) gives them the chance to break out of their comfort zones and get a sense of what it would be like to organize or research something in a professional setting.



What? So What? Now What?


At the beginning of the semester, we were having trouble finding a way to contribute valuable research to the City of Vancouver. They have done extensive research on plastic bag bans associated effects but they have done little work on assessing the viability of using solely compostable bags or what types of compostable bags are most useful for composting facilities.

So what?

After much discussion, the City agreed that this avenue was a good one to focus our efforts on. Through our communication with the city, we have seen that seeking a plastic bag alternative is very much a pertinent issue for them and we are glad to have found a way that we can be of value to them.

Now what?

Now that we have a project to work on, we have been in touch with composting facilities to schedule a meeting where we will be able to learn about their point of view on the issue. From these interviews, we will provide the City with a report detailing important aspects of a potential switch to solely using compostable bags. We hope that this information will help the City in their decision making process.

Future Objectives and Strategies to Achieve them:

  • To visit Harvest Power to set up a time to conduct an in-person or phone interview to ask the interview questions that we’ve laid out in the appendix of the proposal. We have called and attempted to do this already, but haven’t heard back from the company. We plan to call again and suggest a range of options including in-person, phone or email interview so that we are more likely to find an option that works for everyone.
  • To contact Jacob Simonsen from the Danish Waste Association. Denmark has a very low amount of waste that enters landfills and we would like to understand how a successful system such as this one was initiated, and any challenges that were faced in doing so. We will get in touch with Jacob via phone or email to request an interview.

Meet our team!

Kali Little:

Kali is a 3rd year dietetics student at UBC and she is very interested in the link between diet and disease and how this knowledge can be used to reduce chronic disease risk. She also has a personal and professional interest in food, working towards a more sustainable food system, and improving food security. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time in the outdoors, hiking and cycling among other things, and loves having the opportunity to travel and learn about people and places around the world.

Alexander de Demko:

Alexander is a 4th year UBC student majoring in global Resource Systems in the faculty of Land and Food Systems. He is currently in his last semester and will be graduating in May of 2016. Within the GRS program, Alexander has decided to focus on international trade and development. He is also completing a minor in commerce along with his Bachelor of Science. Alex had been studying at the University of California, Davis for the last year and a half in an effort to gain an international perspective on current global political and economic issues. Professionally and academically, he is interested in policymaking, income inequality, entrepreneurship and strategic management. He is also a self-employed math tutor and has experience planning events. As for Alex’s personal interests, he enjoys electronic music, attending concerts, making wine, travelling and spending time with his family, friends and girlfriend.

Wesley Hardy:

Wesley is in LFS’s applied animal biology program. He enjoys his night gig as a bartender at a fancy cocktail bar in Gastown. Bartending is both his job and hobby. In the summer he likes to play tennis, hike, and patron all the great bars in Vancouver. He lives with his dog Kili. He is a German Shepherd dog, and likes sniffing, biting, scratching, and rubbing on trees, standard dog stuff.

The Groups’ Interests and Community Project:


Our group is interested in learning about Vancouver’s plastic bag use, and coming up with solutions to reduce non-reusable bags in Vancouver. We will be working in coordination with an engineer in Waste Reduction and Recovery and a Social Planner for Food Policy who work for the City of Vancouver. They have stated that plastic bag use is an issue that Vancouver would like to focus on. The current challenges are to reduce the purchase and use of compostable plastic products and to create public awareness on which products are accepted by the local organics processor. Ultimately, we would like to propose a solution to the city and to gain experience dealing with elected officials and policy making.

First Impressions:


We think that Asset-Based Community Development will be a great learning experience and an effective approach to take in helping to improve the current thinking around plastic use. Vancouver mayor, Greggor Robertson, is highly interested in making Vancouver the greenest city in the world by the year 2020. Initiatives such as city-wide composting are one step in achieving this goal. Transport of organic material from a household to the composting bin may involve the use of plastic or compostable bags which end up in the compost processing facility. The city has indicated that the use of these bags may be affecting the efficiency of the composting system. Compostable bags may be an asset that the city would like to expand upon, by reducing the use of plastic bags. Further investigation of the effects of compostable bags on compost processing facilities will need to be conducted.

We would like to take a closer look into how these bags effect the composting system and deliver our findings directly to the city. In addition to conducting research on the effects of bags in composting facilities in our region, we want to understand how other municipalities have implemented plastic bag bans, and what the effects of such policies have had within those municipalities.   We hope to gain a thorough understanding of the current practices of plastic and compostable bag disposal of people living within Vancouver, research what is being done with regards to this topic in other cities, and put these together to suggest a plan for building on the positive changes that are already underway in Vancouver.

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