April 26, 2007 | General

Composting Trends In Canada Show Varied Progress

BioCycle April 2007, Vol. 48, No. 4, p. 29
Canada has 350 composting facilities with access to curbside collection of organics varying widely across the provinces.
Paul van der Werf and Michael Cant

CANADA’S IMAGE as an environmentally pristine place full of beautiful lakes, mountains, plains and hockey players belies its consumption and waste generation. Even though there are many diversion programs across the country, waste generation continues to grow by an estimated 1.5 percent annually. Like the United States, Canada continues to rely heavily on landfilling.
Management of organic wastes is a major issue for municipalities, because about half of residential MSW is compostable (20 percent for institutional, commercial and industrial entities). Since about 70 percent of MSW in North America is landfilled, being able to divert close to half the stream away from the landfill gates means a longer lifespan for those sites. Composting is one viable option to help manage these wastes.
While about 11 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) is composted in Europe (plus an additional seven percent processed through mechanical biological treatment) and five percent in the United States, the rate is only four percent in Canada.
A recent survey of composting trends in each of Canada’s ten provinces indicates considerable variability, ranging from all homes having access to curbside composting, to almost none. This study was done using existing information and a survey comparing results across Canada by the waste management consulting services firm 2cg Inc. and environmental and geotechnical consulting firm Golder Associates.
In Canada, environmental standards are considered a provincial responsibility, although the federal government has some influence. In general, municipalities are responsible for their own MSW management issues.
Although organic waste seems like an obvious place to start with regard to MSW diversion, it is often shuffled to the back of the stage in favor of “blue box” type recycling or deposit return schemes. Nonetheless, composting of these organic residuals has grown with time.
Figure 1 depicts access of the population in Canadian provinces to collection of organic wastes. It is estimated that 17 million Canadians have access to curbside organic waste collection. Essentially all of these receive leaf and yard waste collection. Of municipalities with these options, 40 percent also have source separated organics (SSO) programs. There are approximately 50 SSO programs operating in Canada, and 130 leaf and yard waste programs.
The West
The furthest west province, British Columbia (BC), provides composting to 63 percent of its population, having adopted its Organic Matter Recycling Regulation in 2002 (now being updated), quite possibly the most comprehensive guidance document in Canada. There are plans to start more SSO diversion programs in BC before 2010.
In next-door Alberta, the 1996 Code of Practices for Compost Facilities regulates the design, construction, operation and reclamation of composting facilities accepting up to 20,000 metric tons of waste per year. Larger facilities must go through a Certificate of Approval type process. One of the reasons Alberta’s composting rate is among the country’s lowest – at 34 percent – is that its low waste disposal fees make composting an unattractive option financially. This will grow to well over 50 percent as the City of Calgary embarks on a comprehensive curbside composting program expected to start sometime in 2008.
The Prairies
Like Alberta, low disposal costs have reduced the financial attractiveness of composting in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Add to these factors low population densities and abundant landfill space, and the result is that these provinces have among the country’s lowest percentages of population with access to curbside composting programs.
Saskatchewan has about 30 composting facilities, most of which are leaf and yard waste piles, although some are commercial composting operations. The City of Regina has a three-year trial of composting biosolids at its landfill, using the product as daily cover.
In Manitoba, there are about 40 composting facilities, mostly small static pile operations Ninety percent of them accept leaf and yard waste; 25 percent take food wastes.
Central Canada
Ontario, with the country’s largest population (12.5 million, about four million concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area) has an estimated 75 composting facilities, most of them small municipal operations handling leaf and yard waste. There is a drive in the province to divert more SSO wastes. The Ontario provincial government’s goal of 60 percent waste diversion by 2008 has helped the composting cause – as has the tight landfill situation.
The reverse silver lining of the landfill squeeze is that it has resulted in large municipalities including Toronto and the Regions of Peel, Durham and York to add SSO composting programs to their municipal services. In other municipalities, such as the Region of Niagara and the City of Hamilton, foresight and political will over the years have meant a good commitment to diverting organic wastes and SSO.
A new Waste Management Policy (1998-2008) in Quebec (7.5 million population) and its goal of 60 percent diversion are helping fuel growth in its SSO composting programs. Larger municipalities are delaying the implementation of composting plans partly because there is not enough existing composting capacity to accommodate new organic waste (at least in part due to an influx of SSO and biosolids from Ontario), and because funding from landfill taxes and stewardship sources is delayed.
Atlantic Canada
Collectively, the four provinces making up Atlantic Canada have a population of 2.3 million.
Nova Scotia is a shining star of composting in Canada. It has banned organic waste disposal from all its landfills, stimulating the development of composting programs across the province. This makes it a jurisdiction to look up to, not just in Canada but internationally. With a new program in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia will soon have close to 100 percent access to curbside composting,
Prince Edward Island, the country’s smallest province with 135,000 people, is the other star of the Canadian composting scene. It has developed a comprehensive, Island-wide composting program, with a Waste Watch program that is mandatory for residences and businesses.
New Brunswick offers composting to 46 percent of residences, with programs in larger centers like Saint John and Moncton, and a strong institutional, commercial and industrial (IC&I) composting program through private waste companies. It should be noted that the City of St. John’s is embarking on a pilot curbside composting program.
Newfoundland and Labrador are at the other extreme for composting – little to no municipal composting at this time, although there are apparently about six composting facilities.
There are about 350 composting facilities in Canada although most provinces surprisingly do not keep comprehensive lists. Some Sherlock Holmes-like sleuthing was required to buttress available data. Most of the facilities are small, dealing with leaf and yard waste, but there is growth in SSO facilities particularly in Alberta and Ontario. Some municipalities are considering combining their organic waste flow to build the economies of scale that make composting more viable.
As composting grows, so will other issues around its management, particularly odor control. One of the big changes for composting comes with the growth in concern about climate change – composting is increasingly seen as a form of carbon management, and the issue is coalescing around how we efficiently use the energy represented by this carbon. The growth of the carbon-credit trading market in Europe, gradually becoming a reality in North America, will add more change to the composting picture.
It seems inevitable that municipalities’ focus on composting as a way to manage several issues – landfill constraints, cost control, carbon management – will increase. Municipalities need to develop their expertise in composting programs in order to continue meeting their ratepayers’ needs.
Michael Cant is a senior solid waste planner and Ontario Region waste sector leader with Golder Associates Ltd., based in Whitby, Ontario. He can be reached at (905) 723-2727; Paul van der Werf is owner and president of 2cg Inc., a waste management consulting firm with offices in London, Ontario and Edmonton, Alberta. He can be contacted at (519) 645-7733 or

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