Clay Peacock in front of a pile of cured compost, ready for use. (Photo: Zero Waste Yukon)
If you’re familiar with the City of Whitehorse’s compost program, you may know that it’s come a long way in the last 6 years. One of the main reasons for the program’s success is Clay, the compost lead hand at the Whitehorse Waste Management Facility. With food waste a key theme for Waste Reduction Week, we thought we’d highlight the unsung hero turning Whitehorse’s organic waste into compost “black gold.“
“Things are going really well,” Clay tells me. “We’re breaking records every year.”
Most of that is large loads for gardeners and landscapers, but they have also been selling lots of bagged compost for smaller home gardens as well. It’s no surprise that the compost is popular, what could be better than getting a high quality product produced right in Whitehorse?
“You’d be hard pressed to find a better product in North America,” says Clay. “We take great pride in our work, and we’re constantly testing to ensure that what we produce is of the highest quality.”
There’s a reason why many refer to the compost produced here as “black gold.” The finished product is Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) certified for use in organic gardens & farms. They perform bio-assays every 50 cubic yards and test twice a year for hydrocarbons, herbicides and pesticides. The compost consistently has well over the required minimum 95% germination rate.
Clay says he’s disappointed to hear people mislabel the compost produced in Whitehorse as poor quality.
“Lots of what you buy in stores is produced in one place, but labelled in another, so it’s difficult to find out where the compost comes from or what’s in it. With our compost, you know exactly what you’re getting, a local product that’s supporting a local economy and not being shipped in or shipped out.”
Residents can buy bagged compost from the Waste Management Facility, or arrange to buy bulk loads.
Clay’s passion for his work is evident, and it’s clear that this job has had a positive impact on his life. As we walk past the windrows, large piles in various stages of composting, he comments on the smell.
“That smell, that’s good compost. It makes me feel good. You can tell when things are going wrong or right, just by the smell.”
“I spent a lot of years in construction and mining, which can be really destructive industries,” Clay says. “Switching to this job was great, because I could still operate equipment, be outside, but now I’m giving back instead of taking away. I’ve helped transform this place, and it’s transformed me.”
“To be able to take something that people see as waste, and turn it into something they can use to grow food, to feed their families, is something really special. We’re taking over 40% of people’s waste and giving it back to them, what could be better than that?”
This is how items come into the facility, before they are piled into aerated windrows (Photo: Zero Waste Yukon)
The payoffs don’t come without a lot of hard work though. The Whitehorse compost facility is essentially run by two people. Particularly in the summer, when things are busier, they’re swamped trying to keep up with the workload.
“In some places, you might have a whole crew of people dedicated to just pulling garbage out of the compost,” he says. “If I had a crew of 7 people, this place would be like the Taj Mahal of compost!”
It’s two weeks of work to simply shift all the piles over, and with expansions planned for the compost facility, the team has been working even harder to get things ready.
A lot of local businesses are supportive of the City’s organics program, and working hard to ensure they’re composting properly. He points to Save-On-Foods as a good example. Since the beginning they’ve been taking their time, ensuring that plastics don’t end up in the organics bin. While others aren’t quite at that level, he says that slowly a lot of the stores are coming around. Fortunately, composting is now mandatory for the commercial sector, so the compost program will continue to grow.
Organics is the number one material landfilled in Whitehorse. This is a big problem, as landfilling organics creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
When I asked about contaminants in the compost system, Clay tells me that plastics are the number one. Plastic bags and cutlery are most common, and a lot of this material has to be filtered out of the finished product as it doesn’t compost.
“Biodegradable does not mean compostable,” stresses Clay. “Lots of these products are deceiving people, because they’ll say “made from plants” or “biodegradable” but they actually still contain plastic and won’t fully break down.”
He really encourages people to be aware of their purchases – certified compostable bags and cutlery will compost entirely in the system, but plastic bags and forks won’t.
Any compostable products you buy should have one of these two logos, confirming that the product has been tested for compostability.
“We still see tiny bits of plastic in the finished compost – that’s unavoidable. It’s not an issue for the compost quality, and there’s no danger of things leaching into your garden, the bigger concern is that with watering, the plastics rise, and either wash or blow away, into the sewers, into the river.”
It’s no surprise then that he brings his own bags to the grocery store. “When we forget our reusable bags, we’re carrying those groceries out in our arms,” he jokes.
Clay is unsure that a ban on plastics could happen, with the pressure of plastics industry influencing governments. “If it’s between doing the right thing and the dollars,” he says, “the dollars win out every time.” He isn’t wrong. There is tremendous industry influence on government action against plastics. In the United States, there are many states where the plastics industry has even successfully pushed for legislation which prohibits plastic bag bans.
A map of bag laws in the US shows the states with bag laws in place (blue) and states where these laws have been preempted with support of the plastics industry lobby (orange). (Photo: plasticbaglaws.org)
Our discussion turns to recycling and the myth that by simply putting things in our blue bins we’re doing the right thing.
“We recycle because we grow up being told it’s the right thing to do, but when our plastics are being shipped away to be burned, how is that right? There are no easy solutions, but we need to be honest with what’s happening.”
He’s right that there are no easy solutions. The systemic change required to reduce our societal impact on the planet is complicated and at times, overwhelming.
“I don’t know the answers,” says Clay, “but I know this is a good system.”
Judging by my garden’s response to his compost, I’d say he’s right.