Solid Waste & Recycling

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Composting Systems & Services: Journey of a Thousand Miles

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." -- Loa TzuAfter more than a decade spent searching for landfill capacity, the City of Toronto has taken a giant step in the opposite directio...


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Loa Tzu

After more than a decade spent searching for landfill capacity, the City of Toronto has taken a giant step in the opposite direction. With the realization that there are cost-efficient means to divert a significant portion of waste through centralized composting of organic material, Toronto City Council voted by a margin of 40 to 1 to adopt a three-stream system of co-mingled recycables, source-separated organics and residual waste for all single family households.

The city is faced with the imminent closure of the Keele Valley landfill site in December 2002 and its low-cost disposal fee of $12 per tonne. The proposal to rail-haul waste north to the abandoned Adams Mine is off the rails, and it seems the only alternative is to haul waste 300 kilometres south to Michigan for disposal at $52/tonne.

The new three-stream system will be rolled out over the next three years starting this September with 70,000 households in the former City of Etobicoke. About 110,00 residents of Scarborough will follow suit in June 2003, 110,000 in North York in February 2004, and 20,000 in York in June 2004 — subject to successful negotiations with the current private collector, Turtle Island Recycling, a portion of East York and Toronto (90,000) will initiate the system in October 2004 and the remainder of East York and Toronto (100,000) in June 2005. Given this schedule Toronto will eclipse Halifax with its roughly 110,000 households as the largest residential food waste collection program in North America.

The goal is to divert a modest 167 kilograms (kg) per year or 3.2 kg (6.6 lbs.) per week per household — estimated to represent 55 per cent of the food waste generated by each home.

Implementation of the program is budgeted for approximately $70-million in capital expenditures, principally for the purchase of (or refit to) two-compartment trucks. Meanwhile operating costs are projected to increase by only $12.7-million. As such the new system cost is to be comparable to the cost of hauling waste to Michigan.

Taskforce 2010

This new direction is a result of the work of Toronto’s Taskforce 2010. The taskforce was initiated after the heated debate over the proposed plan to haul its waste to the Adams Mine site in Kirkland Lake. The bid was rejected by council due in large part to public protests by both Toronto residents and those of Kirkland Lake. (See “Rail Haul Derailed” in the December/January 2001 edition.)

As a result, Mayor Mel Lastman proclaimed — on the eve of the 2000 municipal elections — that Toronto would find a “made in Toronto solution” for its waste. The new solution would result in the diversion of 30 per cent of waste by 2003, 60 per cent by 2006 and 100 per cent by 2010.

The principal work of the taskforce, chaired by then Works Committee Chair Betty Disero, was to gain direction, input and advice from citizens, environmental organizations and industry. A total of 16 public meetings were held. (See “The Inside Scoop on Toronto’s New Waste Diversion Plans” in the October/November 2001 edition.)

In addition to the public meetings the city conducted seven focus groups and a telephone survey asking 1,116 participants about their preference regarding three types of diversion systems:

a mixed waste system whereby there would be no change in the way residents put out their waste and the non-recycled portion would be sorted with the organic portion, and composted into low quality land cover;

a wet/dry system with the wet waste portion converted to a medium quality compost (similar to Guelph, Ontario); and,

a third system whereby the organic portion would be source-separated and converted into a high quality compost.

According to the interpretation of the results, none of the three systems was an overwhelming favourite. Similar to the input from the public meetings, residents clearly identified the need for convenience, as well as feedback on success.

Public input also included about 300 written submissions, deputations from approximately 30 industry representatives and a meeting with six NGOs.

All of this research resulted in the development of the taskforce report “Beyond Landfill: a Diverting Future.” The report contains a total of 47 recommendations in 16 categories. As its cornerstone the report introduces a source-separated organics collection program for all single-family dwellings in the city. Questions concerning the quality and marketability of finished compost resulting from either the mixed waste or wet/dry alternatives led to the three-stream choice.

Report revisited

Toronto’s new system has several interesting twists. First, unlike the Halifax program, Toronto’s collection program does not include leaf and yard waste. As such, leaf and yard collected in kraft bags or from open containers can continue to be composted using low-tech, low-cost windrows, while the use of the more expensive anaerobic technology will be confined to residential food waste only. Another benefit is that the city’s efforts to encourage grass recycling will not be undermined.

The composting of food waste will be carried out using the anaerobic “BTA-Process” licensed by Canada Composting Inc. of Markham, Ontario. (See “Why Do Organics Matter?” in the August/September 2001 edition.) One of the main features of the BTA-process is the ability to separate plastic bags, via hydropulping, prior to digestion. The use of plastic bags as a liner for either the inside or outdoor container or both is viewed by many as a necessary concession to promote resident participation. In addition, the BTA process allows for the inclusion of pet waste, diapers and sanitary products — items forbidden in most other organic collection programs.

The curbside container, which the city will distribute free of charge, together with a small container for use in the home, is fairly small measuring 24 inches tall by 14 inches wide by 14 inches deep. With a handle on the back that raises the overall height to 27 inches and in the case of Toronto a pair of wheels to facilitate transporting to the curb, the container resembles a piece of large carry-on luggage. With a capacity of approximately 45 litres it is more than adequate in size.

Both containers are to be supplied by Norseman Plastics of Etobicoke, which won the contract in a hotly contested RFP that reportedly generated 60 requests for information and to which 12 companies submitted proposals. Norseman’s winning price was about $20 for both the inside and curbside containers.

The city chose bins over bags believing that if you expect residents to change their behaviour you have “got to give them the tools to do so.” With the bag option it said that forcing homeowners to buy bags would lessen participation and that use of a non-transparent bag would result in identification problems and an increase in contamination.

Another unique aspect of the program is with regard to collection. Toronto will now move to co-mingled (or single stream) recycables. These, together with source-separated organics, will be collected one week while residual waste and source-separated organics will be collected alternate weeks. With the weekly organics collection, it is anticipated that having the residual portion on the property for two weeks will not cause residents concern.

Educational efforts

The education and promotion program has a budget of $400,000 while a corresponding telephone help-line has a budget of $200,000.

As with other similar programs, education plays a significant role so the city hired a legion of summer students to conduct a door-to-door educational campaign. In addition, three newsletters are being distributed in Etobicoke from mid-June to early October.

Etobicoke lies within the larger media market of Toronto so broadcast forms of advertising, television, radio and newspaper would be impractical as the vast majority of residents reached would not be participating in the program. As such, the city will rely on local community newspapers, an

d various forms of outdoor advertising (bus-shelters, etc.).

Finally, additional information was distributed within the bins themselves during their delivery to each individual household starting in August.

Rod Muir is a waste diversion advocate based in Toronto, Ontario.


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