Ever since we began continuously traveling over a year ago, we have struggled with how to compost on the fly. While we have found solutions that work for longer rentals, there have been plenty of times that just finding a way to recycle tin cans has been challenging enough, let alone trying to compost food scraps. So when we started our rental on Prince Edward Island in July, we were thrilled to find that the entire island offers curbside composting.
After a few weeks of putting out our green compost bin for pickup, we started to wonder what exactly became of our banana peels and cereal boxes. We got in touch with Island Waste Management Corporation and were able to arrange a tour of the island’s Central Compost Facility, about 15 km west of Charlottetown.
Derek Thompson, the Operations Manager, greeted us at the door and became our guide for the next hour. He started with a quick overview in the conference room of how the composting process works and answered all of our initial questions about the history of the plant and the process itself (including some great ones by Five Ball and Five of Hearts). We were impressed to learn that the facility (which opened in 2001) has helped reduce the number of landfills on the island from a peak of around 60 to just 1 single landfill today.
Next, Derek led us to the Receiving and Pre-Processing building where the household green bins, along with loads of commercial compost (even trucks full of lobster shells), are taken in and separated. After passing through several steps to remove contaminants such as metal and plastic, the organic material is mixed with leachate (a recycled byproduct of the composting process) and other “ingredients” to make the initial compost mix.
The highlight of this building, however, was spending time in Derek’s office viewing the amazing computer system that regulates and controls the entire facility. He showed us how with the click of a button he can activate conveyor belts, monitor the temperature of individual bins, and track how long a particular batch of compost has been in the system. This definitely wasn’t the pile of food scraps and grass clippings caged within a wall of wooden pallets that had passed for compost at our house.
From there, we headed back outside to get a feel of why the large-scale composting process here on PEI takes only a matter of weeks. We learned about the 52 stainless steel lined storage bins that are separately regulated to control the amount of air flowing through the compost and to track the temperature of each batch. We also got to see the mountain of grass clippings and yard waste from this year’s spring cleanup. Although seemingly left unattended outside, this material is actually mixed as needed into the composting process.
We were most impressed by the nearby biofilter, a massive pile of maple wood that deodorizes the air from the composting process. The air is pumped from inside the buildings to the bottom of the pile, and by the time it reaches the top of the biofilter to be released into the air it smells like a humid rain forest. We only wish the food scrap bin we keep in the refrigerator smelled like this!
The last step of the composting process takes place in the curing building. For the first phase, small batches of compost are monitored and raised to a high temperature for several days to kill any pathogens. Then after a few weeks the compost moves to the back of the building to increase air flow and to finish the composting process. By the end of its time here, the compost is separated by size, the smallest particles (about 75% of the total) shipped for free to farmers who entered their names years ago on the waiting list. The larger sized particles can be shredded down and put through the process again, and material such as plastic is sent to a landfill.
And while we thought this would be the end of the tour, Derek surprised us with an unexpected detour. Out behind the curing shed we found a jungle of squash vines and leaves. This garden, the soil entirely made up of compost from the facility, had produced a string of prize-winning giant pumpkins and was working on another champion. Derek explained that every year the composting facilities all across Canada compete to see who can produce the largest pumpkin grown solely from the facility’s own compost. While keeping an appropriate tone of modesty, he did mention that PEI’s Central Composting Facility had won most of the competitions.
This really came as no surprise to us; with all the amazing things that Prince Edward Island has to offer, it is fitting that is composting facility is on the cutting edge, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and doing its part to keep the island’s air, water, and soil as healthy at it can be. We can only feel fortunate that as temporary island residents, we have the satisfaction of knowing the carrot peels we put out at the curb, which would end up in a landfill almost anywhere else in the world, now have the chance of raising next year’s pumpkin champion.