Solid Waste & Recycling Magazine


Canadian compost slow-going on wide road to change

Asking the experts, it seems that composting is taking longer than expected to alter the landscape of waste management in Canada, mainly due to slow uptake of the burgeoning bio-science. But a national conference on the issue has been ripe with...

Asking the experts, it seems that composting is taking longer than expected to alter the landscape of waste management in Canada, mainly due to slow uptake of the burgeoning bio-science. But a national conference on the issue has been ripe with the view that if municipalities are willing to learn, greener pastures are right around the bend.

During the September 12, 2013 plenary sessions at the  Compost Council of Canada’s three-day National Compost Conference in Toronto, the possibilities seemed endless: new technologies, odour-control techniques, higher yields, even disease resistant formulations of bio-sludge.

Think designer compost.

“It can let a farmer know just what’s in the soil,” said Glenn Munroe, a policy and decision analyst at the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. Behind Munroe was an image of a geiger counter-type device that uses phylochip technology, which can identify organisms within soil. “There are lots of opportunities here to tailor compost,” he added.

Phylochip technology shows one of the major opportunities for the future of compost. Scientists have the ability to mix and match various organisms to suppress certain pests and diseases in the soil. It’s all about finding the right fungal-bacterial balance, said Munroe.

Apart from emerging technologies, the nuts and bolts of composting have been slow to take hold across Canada. Although Statistics Canada reported in 2013 that more than half of Canadian households (61 per cent) participated in some form of composting activity in 2011 — the most recent year on record — the waste diversion rate for the Canadian residential sector remains at about 33 per cent; the industrial sector, meanwhile, has stalled at just 19 per cent.

While greentech and cleantech have exploded in recent years, “soils, so far, not as much,” said Munroe.

Why? One of the main reasons bandied about at the Toronto sessions was that many stakeholders are simply uncertain about how to proceed with composting processes, especially on a larger scale.

According to Natasha Page, a compost expert at Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, demonstration sites are one way to get the ball moving forward in fence-sitter communities where composting could be intimidating, or just simply new.

As a self-professed soccer mom, Page uses that role as a way to get the message out to parents and others in her Alberta community.

“People will see that green composting soccer field as a demonstration plot,” she said. “That creates more development.”

In fact, Page helped survey sports field managers across Alberta to determine if they used compost on their turf. The results show that only 35 per cent of the fields use composted materials. Little do they know, that composting saves money on fertilizer and can strengthen the turf, even lengthen the roots of the grass, said Page.

On the municipal level, Page said that 78 per cent of municipal councils in Alberta have yet to even discuss the possibility of introducing a compost program.

In Toronto, municipal inaction is not the problem. In Canada’s largest city, it’s the property managers that are often to blame for composting missing the mark on a residential level. Toronto has more than 6,000 multi-residential buildings, yet fewer than half are participating in the city’s mandatory composting program.

Yes, mandatory. But at this point, the City has chosen to not enforce the program on a bylaw level, said Sandra Zavaglia, operational support manager for the City of Toronto’s Solid Waste Management Services Division.

“We may take action down the line,” Zavaglia told EcoLog News. “Right now, it’s about education.”

Optimistic about that education, the City has even built a massive new composting facility on Disco Road to manage what it believes will be a massive upswing in composting over the next decade.

Even Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s composting success stories, still has some major flaws. Despite composting facilities in 16 of the province’s 18 counties, some 34 per cent of organics still end up in landfills, said Don McQueen, a research technical analyst with Nova Scotia Environment.

However, change is on its way, he said. In 2005, Nova Scotia composted more than 72,000 tonnes of organics; by 2012 that number jumped to more than 114,000 tonnes. 

On a national level, there has been some movement on the organics front over 2013. Environment Canada released a major technical document that outlines the entire composting process. The Technical Document on Municipal Solid Waste Organics Processing in Canada is available here.

The author of the Environment Canada document, Alain David, is a program engineer with the department’s Waste Management and Reduction Division. He told delegates at the national conference that composting can sometimes be turned into something more complex than it needs to be. At its heart, he said, the art and science of composting isn’t something to fear.

“Sometimes people forget what composting actually is,” said David. “[It’s] just bio-organisms, and you have to keep them happy.”

This news item first appeared in EcoLog News. To learn how to subscribe, visit