Published in The Vancouver Sun.

Vancouver’s eight-storey Performing Arts Lodges is closing the loop on food scraps recycling by taking back some of its organic waste in the form of rich organic fertilizer for the rooftop garden.

The 4,000-square-foot garden provides exercise and fresh vegetables for building residents, plus vegetable trim and prunings for thousands of voracious red wigglers at WormWorx, an organic waste hauler and worm-based composting business.

The worms produce castings, a waste product and potent soil amendment that will be used to grow flowers, shrubs and this season’s tomatoes and kale atop the 111-unit apartment building facing Stanley Park.

“When I started the business I wanted to differentiate myself from the big haulers and give my customers something back as a thank-you,” said Vish Hour, proprietor of WormWorx.

WormWorx picks up food scraps from apartment buildings and restaurants and hauls most of it to Harvest Power, the region’s biggest commercial composting enterprise. But every kilogram Hour processes through his own vermicomposting system is a kilogram he doesn’t have to pay to tip at Harvest.

“I can sell the worm castings and it essentially pays for my fuel costs and I can give some of it back to my customers,” he said.

Many of the city’s 5,700 multi-unit residential buildings are racing against time to organize food scraps collection systems ahead of a July 1 deadline, the end of the six-month grace period for complying with Metro Vancouver’s ban on food scraps in the waste stream. After that, fines may be levied against trash haulers who show up with too much food waste in their loads.

Even though PAL Vancouver pays Wormworx to haul their organics, the arrangement is financially self-sustaining because it reduces the number of pickups required to remove the building’s non-compostable trash by 25 per cent, said Laurie MacKenzie, who co-ordinates the project at PAL.

“It pays for itself by removing the heaviest material from the compactor loads,” she said.

MacKenzie has been fine-tuning the building’s food scraps collection system for nearly two years with Vancouver Trash Talk, which supports multi-unit organic waste pilot programs with funding from the Greenest City Fund, Vancity and TD Friends of the Environment.

The building has struggled through just about every barrier that organics collection systems can throw up — from missed pickups and scummy, unwashed bins to fountains of maggots and over-fed flies infesting the collection space — until they settled on a system, a hauler (their third) and pickup schedule that works.

It takes patience and education to overcome people’s resistance to the idea of handling, sorting and storing organic waste. PAL’s residents are a particularly tight-knit community, which helped speed acceptance.

“The (July 1) deadline for compliance is really ambitious; people have no idea how hard it is to get this right,” said MacKenzie. “That’s going to be a crazy challenge for all these buildings around us.”

The participation rate in the building is 60 per cent, which provides WormWorx with 60 kilograms of compostable waste a week.

“We diverted nearly three tonnes of food waste last year and we’ve only had one bin rejected,” she said.

The building provides social housing for aging performers and houses a 120-seat theatre, but not all their patrons are as well-trained as the building’s residents about which waste goes where.

A core group of six gardeners maintain the rooftop patio space and garden, which includes herbs and vegetables and a greenhouse.

“The garden has been here since the building opened nine years ago and it’s pretty amazing,” MacKenzie said. “We get a lot out of it.”

Randy Shore is the author of Grow What You Eat, Eat What You Grow, a cookbook for gardeners and a gardening manual for food lovers. Buy it online in time for spring planting (and eating).

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