Peel Region shipped 50 truckloads of unfinished compost to Cornerstone Landscaping in Barrie because its organics processing facility in Caledon had to shut down due to odours.
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Ontario municipalities 'scrambling' to cope with surge in kitchen refuse and plant closings
Ontario facilities that compost kitchen waste are in such short supply that thousands of tonnes have been sent to the United States for incineration and at least one municipality has improperly dumped truckloads within the province.
Severe odour problems are the main reason for the closing of facilities, including Peel Region's compost-curing location in Caledon and two plants in Quebec that took thousands of tonnes from Toronto and York region.
At the same time, new facilities in Ontario can barely meet the surging demand from municipal green bin programs that recycle food waste into high-grade compost.
"If somebody goes out of business then we've got a real problem – there is no extra capacity in the system," said Durham Region's Cliff Curtis, chair of Regional Public Works Commissioners of Ontario.
"In many ways, we are victims of our own success. There have been more (organics) collected than expected, and we are scrambling."
Pushed by the Ontario government to recycle organics, municipalities collected 251,368 tonnes of kitchen scraps in green bins in 2007 – a jump of nearly 30 per cent over 2006. Those numbers will only go higher. Toronto is expanding its green bin program into apartments, increasing organic collections from about 115,000 tonnes a year to 170,000 tonnes within the next 16 months.
The green bin program has grown so fast that it has outstripped the ability of municipalities to process the organics locally, creating a new carbon footprint since the material is trucked to facilities hundreds of kilometres away.
The program collects mountains of leftover steak, hamburgers, vegetables and (depending on the municipality) diapers and pet waste, diverting them from the landfills into compost. It is the meat products that tend to cause the odours.
The vast popularity of organic recycling has placed cities in a vulnerable position. When a facility shuts down, city managers need backup plans because excess rotting food cannot be stored in warehouses.
Despite pressuring municipalities to recycle organics, the Ontario government has not created a comprehensive plan to help them do so, although ministry sources say the current review of the Waste Diversion Act will bring change. Some cities, like Toronto, have decided to get into the processing business, with long-term plans to own facilities that will provide two-thirds of the processing capacity.
"We've been shuffling since our program started in 2002," said Toronto's Geoff Rathbone, general manager of solid waste. "It has been a challenge every day to find sufficient capacity for organics ... they have to flow every day."
Among recent contingency plans:
York Region trucked 11,864 tonnes of kitchen waste to Covanta Energy, an incinerator in Niagara Falls, N.Y., between March and August 2008 when its Quebec processor was shut down.
The City of Guelph ships 10,000 tonnes of kitchen waste every year to Covanta Energy. During the mid-1990s, the city was considered a composting pioneer but closed its facility in 2006 due to odours and structural weakness caused by ammonia.
Peel Region shipped 50 truckloads of partially composted kitchen waste to Barrie topsoil company Cornerstone Landscaping in 2007. The company did not have environment ministry approval to accept "unfinished" compost, which contains inorganic material, an environment ministry spokesperson said. Mounds of the compost – including tattered plastic bags – remain on the site.
Ministry of environment spokesperson Kate Jordan said investigators responded to an odour complaint about Cornerstone in late 2007 but did not issue an order against the company because it co-operated in the cleanup. Jordan said plastic bags included in the compost defined it as "unfinished." Cornerstone and Peel are now working under the oversight of the province to remove thousands of tattered plastic bags that held the organics, Jordan said.
Cornerstone's owner, Rick Sova, said his company did not need ministry approvals to take the organics, saying the compost was already finished when it arrived on site.
"We took the material, we screened it, we processed it into a good organic medium for growing results, the Region of Peel is taking back the plastic and they're processing it," Sova said.
Larry Conrad is the acting director of waste management for Peel Region. He said Peel sent the material to Cornerstone because odour problems forced the region to close its outdoor curing facility in Caledon. He said they also believed it was a finished product. The region is seeking approvals to build a new composting facility in Caledon.
"Composting is a tough industry," Conrad said. "It is an industry that has a lot of odour problems. We operated our composting plant in Caledon for many years with no odour issues, but obviously we weren't immune to it."
Every municipality collects different items and uses a slightly different composting process, but the system generally works like this:
Bags of kitchen waste are picked up from neighbourhood curbs and taken to processing facilities, where the food is dumped into enormous vats and separated from the plastic bags and errant shampoo bottles.
It continues through the system, sometimes taking weeks, until the organics have turned into a thick, dark material with a heavy ammonia-like odour. It is then trucked to a composting facility, which turns it into the compost that is given to residents or sold in stores to be spread on gardens and lawns.
The juggling act to keep composting – and diverting from overflowing landfills – has forced cities to look further afield for their processors. Toronto, for example, had shipped roughly 1,000 truckloads of organic waste a year to Quebec. That arrangement ended last November when the Quebec environment ministry limited the company's intake due to odour problems.
In that case, Toronto quickly ramped up their contracts with two new Ontario facilities, Orgaworld, a Dutch-owned company that opened a facility near London, and Universal Resource in Welland.
The city also has plans to build two processing facilities, at the Disco Transfer Station in north Etobicoke and the Dufferin Waste Management Facility in North York.
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