The Canadian province of Nova Scotia banned landfill disposal of all compostables in 1997. Almost 20 years later, BioCycle checks in on organics diversion progress.
BioCycle August 2015
Clear bags are a major weapon in Nova Scotia’s fight to increase its collection of source separated organics. On August 1, Halifax, the largest city and capital, joined the rest of the province — on the East Coast of Canada — in requiring its residents to put out their garbage for collection in the see-through bags.
The clear bags, first adopted by two small communities in 2001 and only recently more widespread, are in the forefront of the effort to boost organics collections. They are mandatory for residents and businesses in every community except Halifax, which has made them voluntary for businesses. The bags let collectors see whether organics and other banned items are being mixed in with trash instead of separated into the requisite 64-gallon green carts and blue bags. One opaque or black bag is allowed every two weeks to shield “private” items from public view.
Specific regulations vary among the municipalities and regions but, generally, violators are warned and often receive educational materials on recycling. Those who remain recalcitrant might have their offending bags stickered and left at the curb.
The move is part of a new, wider initiative to rejuvenate a pioneer waste diversion program that still leads Canada, but has stalled in the past few years. Nova Scotia’s policies to promote organics recycling have, from the start, been part of the broader waste diversion plan. The latest proposals are no different: They are part of a Solid Waste Reduction strategy issued in draft form last fall by the provincial environment ministry, Nova Scotia Environment. Months of public consultations on the strategy followed.
In 1989, all of Canada’s 10 provinces agreed to a target of 50 percent waste diversion by 2000. At the time, almost all of Nova Scotia’s wastes were incinerated or put into rudimentary landfills. The province formally committed to the diversion goal in 1995, and became the first in Canada to achieve it. Central to that success was a ban, phased in over three years, on landfilling organics, as well as most reusable, recyclable and hazardous materials. The ban also applied to incineration and any energy-from-waste facilities that might be constructed. The prohibition was applied to leaf and yard trimmings in 1996, and to compostable organic materials the following year. In response, almost all municipalities soon launched 3-stream curbside collection programs. The Halifax region, with nearly half the province’s population, began its collections in 1999.
In 2007, the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act modified Nova Scotia’s overall diversion target: The 50 percent goal remained but was strengthened by a commitment to reduce per capita waste disposal to 300 kilograms (kg) (~660 lbs), from the total then of about 475 kg (~1,050 lbs), by this year.
The programs have been moderately successful. The province won’t hit the 300-kg target this year. And provincial officials predict that goal is several years away: “It’s out there for whenever we get to it,” says Don MacQueen, research technical analyst with Nova Scotia Environment. Nevertheless, annual per capita disposal of all wastes has dropped to about 380 kg (~840 lbs), which is about 45 percent below the Canadian average. While the diversion rate has stalled at around 50 percent, the actual tonnage of material being diverted rises annually as Nova Scotians generate increasing amounts of trash.
Some 95 percent of Nova Scotia’s households now have access to curbside collection of source separated organics, a total equalled in Canada only by the tiny neighboring province of Prince Edward Island. More than half of the 226,000 tons of organic wastes generated annually by the province’s nearly 945,000 residents — as well as food service and processing businesses and large industries such as forestry, fish processing and mink farming — are now processed at 19 central composting facilities and two anaerobic digesters. These include nine in-vessel facilities that process leaf and yard trimmings, source separated organics and biosolids; 10 facilities are open windrows that process biosolids, mink carcasses, fish processing wastes, leaf and yard trimmings, wallboard and source separated organics; and two anaerobic digesters fed with mink manure and waste feed, silage and crop residues, dairy manure, wash water and source separated organics. Each facility composts some of the materials listed for its category; they don’t each handle all of them. The largest are two enclosed systems serving Halifax with a combined annual capacity of about 55,000 tons.
For the time being, the province’s central composting facilities, most owned by municipalities, can’t accept much more organic material. Most are near capacity and many need to be upgraded or repaired, a serious issue in the cash-strapped province. In particular need of work are the in-vessel systems, with covers affected by years of exposure to acid caused by moisture and carbon dioxide from the composting process. Historic Lunenburg, which in 1994 became the first community in the Americas to adopt in-vessel composting (predating the provincial waste-reduction strategy), recently spent nearly $1 million to replace the roof on its composting facility.
No new in-vessel facilities have been proposed; they’re too expensive, MacQueen says. More are likely to be systems that rely upon covered aerated windrows, similar to a newly built facility located in Colchester County, northeast of Halifax (pop. 50,000). The new facility replaces an in-vessel technology that was partially experimental from 1996. “The overall message I hear from many in the industry is ‘keep it simple’, especially in rural areas,” notes Robert Kenney, recycling development officer with Nova Scotia Environment. “That’s why they chose this technology. However, we would like to see more research into greater aerobic composting efficiencies, e.g., using the wasted heat, CO2 and leachate for ‘value added’ purposes.”
Nine anaerobic digester projects were approved under the province’s now-discontinued feed-in tariff, which will pay nearly double the market rate, or about 18 cents/kilowatt hour, over 20 years for electricity generated using biogas and sold to the provincial grid. But only two of those have progressed as far as seeking environmental and other regulatory approvals. They include a 25,350-ton farm-based project and a 29,800-ton facility outside of Halifax, proposed by Miller Waste Systems, based near Toronto, Ontario.
With these additions and a bit of existing excess capacity, the province will have enough capacity for the next couple of years, MacQueen says. “It’s not a crisis. It’s at the point where it’s time to sit back and evaluate.”
Still, despite the ban, compostable organics continue to top the amount, by weight, of materials going into landfills. The annual total of 99,000 tons of organics still in the landfill stream indicates more work must be done to improve participation and enforcement, MacQueen says. “We’ve hit a bit of a plateau. The reality is we need a way to target those 99,000 tons. We need to determine what are feasible ways to access this tonnage and what compliance with the disposal bans would mean with regard to acceptable levels of organics remaining in the waste stream.” Where the clear bag system is in place, collections of both organics and recyclable materials have increased by 15 to 35 percent, adds Kenney.
Extended Producer Responsibility
A small part of the costs of operating the diversion programs, as well as education and research to enhance them, are covered by grants from the dairy industry as well as the government-mandated, private sector operated Resource Recovering Fund Board, which runs Nova Scotia’s beverage container and tire recycling programs. The Board’s funding results from a 10-cent deposit on all beverage containers except those for milk (the dairy industry provides grant funds in lieu of participating in the deposit program). Consumers get five cents back when they return the containers to depots. Some of the revenue from unreturned containers is distributed among municipalities based on their waste diversion rates — the higher the rate, the more they get.
But this financing system leaves municipal government to shoulder most of the waste diversion costs, totalling about $80 million annually. It’s also variable, since the amount of revenue from the beverage container deposit depends on sales and how many containers are returned for recycling.
The proposed Solid Waste Regulation strategy would address this issue, mainly by establishing an “Extended Producer Responsibility,” or EPR, program. Based on the “polluter pay” principle and similar to existing programs in several other Canadian provinces, it would make the brand owners, also known as “product stewards,” cover at least part of the recycling costs for some 25 different materials.
“A product stewardship framework would require each brand owner of a designated product to submit a plan … detailing how they would ensure products are recycled instead of going to landfills,” says Nova Scotia Environment in the waste reduction strategy report. The system would shift the financial burden from financially stressed municipalities and their taxpayers to manufacturers and, ultimately, consumers, the report states.
The key for organics is that EPR would require industries that sell or distribute paper products and packaging to pay for diversion of their materials in both the recycling and organics streams. For organics recycling, these include pizza boxes and other soiled food packaging, as well as boxboard, paper towels, tissues and other low-quality fibers that aren’t worth making into new paper products. There’s a large quantity, either separated and composted or going to landfill, Kenney notes. “Paper and packaging is our Number One EPR target. It’s our biggest stream.”
The strategy also includes provision for putting gypsum wallboard and particleboard into organics. The gypsum would add needed calcium and sulfur to farm soils. Particleboard would provide bulk.
The strategy is contentious, the consultation report notes: “Overwhelmingly, respondents support some form of product stewardship and EPR.” However, “it was also very clear that key stakeholders, particularly municipalities and stewards, want to continue to be engaged … to ensure that the regulations do not have significant financial impacts or administrative burden,” and “a small minority either objected to EPR or wanted the province to conduct more study before moving forward. “
The potential cost to industry must still be determined since no other provinces have implemented EPR for paper products in the organics stream. “Industry would prefer not to pay,” Kenney says, although it appears larger companies would be satisfied as long as they could, as in British Columbia, manage the system and it is, from their point of view, allowed to be efficient and transparent.
There is “some interest” in incineration, MacQueen adds. It’s allowed in Nova Scotia, and “some municipalities see it as a possible option.” But its potential is limited by the ban on burning organics and other recyclable materials. “Someone could build an energy-from-waste plant and then find out they don’t have enough fuel, or fuel with the right energy characteristics,” he says.
Also to be developed are markets for the compost the facilities produce. While several private operators are working hard to market it as a soil amendment, most municipalities appear to view compost as a waste product and give it away to their residents or sell it to soil blenders or landscape contractors at a relatively low price.
Still, the officials say there’s a lot of enthusiasm, at least in principle, for organics recycling and other waste diversion measures. “It is evident from the responses that the proposals have a lot of support,” says provincial environment minister Randy Delorey in a recent report on the consultation meetings. “Stakeholders conveyed the conviction that the province is a proud recycling and composting jurisdiction — we were leaders once, and it is time to be leaders again.”
Peter Gorrie is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.