I was at a Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) event last Wednesday night at the gorgeous new Creekside Community Centre in the Olympic Village. The VFPC was launching the Food Secure Vancouver study, a baseline report of the state of food security in our city. They kicked off the evening by feeding us from some of the hip new food carts. As a vegetarian, I was not able to participate in the hip-ness, both of the carts were serving seafood. Upstairs though, they served us a pretty little beet salad, mini bruschettas and a lovely vichyssoise. The food was beautiful, sourced from BC farms and catered by Savoury City, with assistance from Northwest Culinary Academy.
The presentations were interesting too. In addition to the discussions around “How Food Secure is Vancouver in a Changing World? 2010,” there was the introduction of a new mobile app that highlights local food assets, and a peek at an early draft of the Vancouver Food Strategy by City of Vancouver staff. But what did I get fixated on? The bowls and the cutlery. They looked wooden. I was pretty sure they were compostable. But no one was mentioning the dishware. No one else even seemed to notice how cool they were. Trust me to get obsessed with the waste part of the food system. I decided to do a little investigating.
I asked one of the servers, she had no idea. I headed to the kitchen where one of the staff was about to dump a giant stack of the gorgeous bowls into the garbage. I asked, “Is the dinnerware compostable?” Which stopped the guy in mid throw. Then there was a bit of a scramble as they realized they had no compost bin set up in the tiny kitchen and there was no composting system in the Park Board run facility. Neither of the kitchen staff I talked to knew what the bowls were made of, where they came from, or if they were indeed compostable. I finally tracked down the owner of Savoury City out in the hallway. She told me they were made from pressed leaves and were completely compostable, sourced from BSI Biodegradable Solutions. She said they didn’t use them very often because they were expensive. I wanted to take mine home they were so funky and at home I would reuse them, not compost them.
I did wonder if they were fully compostable however. While I was helping set up a waste management system for the O Zone in Richmond leading up to the Olympics, we ran into a pretty big glitch. Coke, a major Olympics sponsor, had designed a new cup and lid just for the Games. According to Coke, they were fully compostable and they even had the US certification to prove it. But turns out, the commercial composting facility we were using did not consider the cups compostable. They had a PLA lining – which is a plant-based resin or polymer, considered plastic by some facilities. After many days and nights with visions of a mountain of Coke cups dancing in my head, we eventually resolved the issue. The facility agreed to compost the materials in a separate area. But what we came up against through this process, was that there is no standardization for dinnerware and no infrastructure in place to manage it. And just because the manufacturer says it’s biodegradable or compostable, doesn’t mean it actually is or that it even gets composted. Also, it might be compostable in an industrial facility but not in your backyard compost bin.
I looked on BSI’s web site, and couldn’t find the bowls, so I emailed them. Susanna Carson, the owner, called me back – on a Sunday – impressive! Turns out the bowls weren’t theirs, but from a company called Saakori. They were made from palm fibre and according to the web site a hundred percent bio-degradable and home compostable. Trouble is, there are no standards that tell us what that actually means or that the local commercial facilities will in fact accept them.
According to Carson, we need to put everyone in a room, the companies who run the composting facilities, the policy makers, and the suppliers and come up with standards. In Belgium, Vincotte certifies products for both commercial and home composting, so that the consumer, the hauler and the composter know what they are getting and whether or not it can be composted at a commercial facility or in the backyard bin.
It’s hard to not get distracted by the beautiful local food on our plate, but let’s not forget there’s a tail to this food system.