The Pulse Of The Composting Industry In Canada

BioCycle February 2008, Vol. 49, No. 2, p. 21

From a quarter million tons composted annually in the early 1990s to almost 4 million metric tons today, organics diversion in Canada has taken a gigantic leap forward.

Susan Antler

RECENTLY, when asked to provide some “wisdom from the compost piles and programs” of our members, we looked back on the past 17 years of the life of The Composting Council of Canada (CCC), reflecting on the passion, frustration and determination of our organics recovery advocates that have made composting visions real. Collectively, these visions are now responsible for diverting about 4 million metric tons of organic residuals or 12 percent of Canada’s annual waste stream from landfill – a gigantic leap since the early 1990s when the annual national organics diversion totals were about 275,000 metric tons.

While each vision has had differences, there has been a lot that they all have in common. Fundamentally, each vision started with the same choice – to view organic residuals as a valuable resource instead of a waste. Viewed as a waste, organics would continue to be buried in landfills, consuming precious space and creating leachate, greenhouse gas and other management issues that provide serious legacies for generations to come. However, treated as a renewable resource, the organic residuals are elevated in status, becoming the means to minimize our environmental footprint and create compost, of fundamental importance to the health and well being of our soils.

In 2006, CCC surveyed about 225 composting facilities in Canada. Data compiled from various provinces illustrates the level of activity: New Brunswick – 20 facilities processing 1.2 million metric tons; Quebec – 29 facilities processing 1.0 million metric tons; British Columbia – 36 facilities processing 257,750 metric tons; Ontario – 60 facilities processing 681,000 metric tons; and Alberta – 39 facilities processing 603,000 metric tons. (Details about Nova Scotia are provided in the accompanying article in this issue’s feature, Composting In Canada.)

A variety of collection strategies are used across the country to bring organic residuals to these facilities. The vast majority of projects servicing residents utilize the source separated approach, with curbside setouts of organics, recyclables and trash. The frequency of collection for separated organics (kitchen waste and soiled paper) is generally weekly, with separate leaf and yard waste pick-up. Materials are set out in paper bags, carts (with or without liners), plastic bags and compostable plastic bags. The processing technologies used range from windrows and aerated static piles (covered and open air), in-vessel (both bays and containers), and anaerobic digestion followed by composting.

THE PLAYING FIELD
When we look at the road Canadian composters have traveled, the analogy of a football game seems appropriate. While a fundamental pulse has had to continuously beat in the heart of the composting advocate “quarterback,” they each surrounded themselves with a team that could rival any found on a sports field. Regulatory referees, coaches sourced from academic institutions and consultancies, player-employees, and fan support from the neighborhood and political arenas all contributed to the success of their game. Each game plan developed was prepared to answer the following questions:

o What are the rules?
o What are the feedstocks?
o How are you going to get them?
o Where are you going to take them?
o What will the process be?
o What will you do with the product produced?
o How much will it cost – what will you save and what will you gain?

Each composter has encountered game “blockers,” requiring them to overcome resistance to change and delay tactics (often known as “let’s do another study”). Each has had their vision, their team, their preparedness and their “never give up” drive that has helped them win. And the learning gained from the experience of others, the trust coming from “kick the tire” reality versus future promises and the confidence in choosing not to reinvent the wheel has helped provide them with strength.

So far, a soon-to-close landfill has been the biggest impetus to moving the game ahead. Recently, however, several studies – Industrial Composting in New Brunswick (Environmental, Social and Economic Benefits) and Measuring the Benefits of Composting Source-Separated Organics in the Region of Niagara – are providing serious economic strength to the “organic residual recovery” imperative.

Regulatory certainty and support in the form of mandates, land use criteria, operational requirements, enforcement procedures and procurement policies have provided clarity of game rules and market support. Establishing procedural routines and systems has helped overcome play-by-play experiences. Those who have always remembered (and respected) the science of composting, invested in training and education, strove for operational excellence and remained ever-hungry to learn from the experience of others have become masters in harnessing the technical fundamentals associated with operational success. And those who have allocated upfront and ongoing investment and care in community relations plans have benefited from neighborhood acceptance and support.

Overall, two of the biggest inadequacies have been the limited societal vision for organics recovery and severely restricted budgets directed to public education and communication about the merits of composting/anaerobic digestion (as well education on the value and use of compost for soil health and vitality). Those who have embarked on residential source separation programs for organics have often not had the political confidence to provide residents with constructive feedback about the quality of their efforts, emphasizing that “garbage in” only results in “garbage out” if they clutter up their organics collection containers with noncompostable materials.

While establishing markets for the finished compost has never been a slam-dunk, a consistent, high quality product and the continued reliability of supply source have been keys to successful compost sales strategies. For many, the development of markets has taken at least three years, requiring investments in growth trials and sampling (versus giving the product away), as well as recipes and procurement specifications.

And so our game continues. The fan base is growing. More and more players are coming onto the field. And the scorecard is weighing more heavily in favor of “our side.”

From a 10,000 foot perspective, we have come a long way in a short period of time. Once we get down to field level, though, our day-to-day progress often seems snail-paced. But each day adds up, and like the tortoise in the fabled race, the race is ours to win.

Susan Antler is Executive Director of The Composting Council of Canada (www.compost.org).

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