Garret Gillespie points to a heaping, ragged pile of dirt and shredded plastic. “This is the problem,” he says. “This is the economic problem right here.” The pile is what’s known in the composting business as “organics residuals.” It's the leavings after the rich black earth—“the good stuff people buy”—has been removed. Cities with large-scale compost programs the world over have discovered a shared problem: only half of what residents dump in their compost bins actually comes out the other end as usable soil. The rest is contaminated with plastic, unusable—and because the residuals are partly organic, they’re not normally allowed in landfills either.
That’s where Gillespie comes in. With support from Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre, he’s spent the past three years developing a machine that separates the plastic from the rest. “It takes that”—Gillespie points to the pile of residuals—“and turns it into this”: a clean pile of material that looks like wood chips. It’s not the same as the dark soil sought after by gardeners, but it’s perfect to be re-used as carbon at the front end of the composting process. “You can’t compost without it,” he says. Composters would normally have to buy wood chips to mix in with the materials collected from compost bins, but Gillespie’s machine turns their own unmanageable waste into a free wood-chip substitute.
The machine, officially dubbed a “method and apparatus for separating plastic from compost and other recyclable materials,” is more than 99% effective, and it received its Canadian and U.S. patents this year. There’s nothing else like it: it’s “totally novel,” Gillespie says. He has been fielding calls from all over the world about his invention, but he’s a patient worker. “I’m not interested in trying to rush something and make a mess of it.” His next step is to build a new model, an official prototype that incorporates all the lessons he learned working on the current iteration. And then? Hopefully, he’ll change the way we compost, cutting down waste worldwide.