Institutional Composting:  

The Sherbrooke Community Centre Story

3-unit composterLots of households manage to compost their food and yard wastes at home, but that action gets a whole lot more complicated when your "household" is several hundred people. The Sherbrooke Community Centre, a large long-term care home in Saskatoon, decided to embrace that challenge in the spring of 2008 with the assistance of the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is that they chose to do this in a low-tech, low-cost way.

A food waste composting program had been on the minds of Sherbrooke staff for several years. It was a good fit with both the other recycling efforts they were making and the general management philosophy. Sherbrooke is an innovative facility that is home to 270 residents, 100 Community Day Program participants, 400 volunteers, families, friends, students, and 500 staff. Its management is shaped by the Eden Alternative(TM) philosophy which attempts to combat loneliness, helplessness and boredom by introducing pets, plants and children into the home. Staff are assigned to work with consistent groups of people so that meaningful relationships can develop. People living there are encouraged to be active within their physical limitations. An attached greenhouse, raised outdoor garden beds, a vegetable garden and Ramsay King, Sherbrooke's enthusiastic horticulturalist, offer both meaningful activity for residents and a way to use the compost generated. Ramsay was already running a small-scale worm compost bin in the greenhouse and diverting about a ton of plant waste by tilling it into the vegetable and flower gardens. Composting food scraps was an obvious next step. The finished compost would be a welcome addition to the Sherbrooke gardens and flower beds.

Collecting kitchen wasteFood is prepared in two ways at Sherbrooke. There is a large kitchen that serves those living and working in the core area of the home. The rest of the food is prepared and eaten in the eleven households units that are connected by indoor streets to the main building. In the large kitchen, collecting the vegetable scraps from the preparation stage was identified as "doable". It was also possible to work with staff and residents in the households to separate their compostables from other garbage.

Sherbrooke is already recycling milk containers, paper and cardboard, so sorting waste materials is a familiar activity. The new composting program needed some careful planning. The "inside" challenges to plan around were: staff training, choosing and placing the right containers, moving the materials to a central collection point and then emptying them into a compost bin. The size, placement, construction, and on-going management of the compost bins were the outdoor aspects that needed to be planned. This all needed to be done in a tidy, inexpensive, efficient way. Sherbrooke had the will so the way was found. They felt a small-scale program with the potential to grow was the best approach for them.

ComposterIn the fall of 2008, volunteers constructed a twenty foot long, four-unit compost bin out of used wood and placed it in an appropriate outdoor spot on Sherbrooke property. Indoors, kitchen staff had devised a simple and effective system for collecting and transporting vegetable waste to the collection point in the greenhouse. Food waste composting was underway at Sherbrooke.

In the spring of 2009, Sherbrooke developed a work activity program for residents that involved collecting the compostables from the households. In this case, younger, wheelchair-using residents picked up the household containers and delivered them to a larger container in the greenhouse area. The households' scraps are collected and moved in reused ice cream pails. From the home's perspective, collection of food scraps from the households brought material reuse, composting and meaningful work together in this single activity.

Ramsay King takes all the compost delivered to the greenhouse to the compost bins. Sherbrooke estimates that it can now divert one ton of food waste to the compost system each year.

BeautifulThe goal at Sherbrooke is to move the composting activity from a program to a point where it is recognized as part of the regular way the home operates. Being environmentally responsible is one of the organization's core objectives, so philosophically, composting is an appropriate action for Sherbrooke. Progress is dependent on an on-going commitment of staff and residents. A composting system with more capacity (and probably more sophistication) is required if the volumes handled increase. Challenges occur when Sherbrooke works with outside agencies such as the ones who assist them with grounds maintenance. It is important that they understand and participate in the home's composting systems.

The Sherbrooke story is great model for other institutions. Ingenuity, co-operation and partnerships are key elements. Sherbrooke sees challenges ahead but is happy to have begun work in this area. A Green team with representatives from throughout the organization will be reinvigorated in 2010.