One of the greatest challenges faced by municipal waste managers or, in my case, editors of environmental trade magazines, is the issue of how to assess vendors’ claims about the effectiveness of their programs and equipment in diverting waste from landfill. This is especially true of the increasingly popular recycling and compost plants for which apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult.
The main stumbling block is the absence of an agreed-upon set of criteria or standards for any rational assessment of data. For instance, does the use of compost for daily landfill cover count as diversion? Some say it does, some say it doesn’t. And whom do we trust to conduct an objective review? Consultants are under pressure to please clients. Like sprinters in a race with no stopwatch, each waste management company claims to be the winner and the judges are unable to settle the dispute.
A good example of this dilemma is the mixed-waste plant operated by TCR Environmental on the outskirts of Aylmer, Ontario. The plant is the cornerstone of Tillsonburg’s astonishing 85 per cent waste diversion program that has won awards across North America. Yet some people suspect that an objective review of the plant’s mass balance might reveal TCR’s methods and reporting are just smoke and mirrors.
In an industry swarming with equipment purveyors, TCR may have made enemies simply by suggesting that high diversion rates need not be a high-cost high-tech affair. Bagged waste is collected at curbside (from four towns in 1998: Aylmer, Malahide, Strathroy and Tillsonburg) in two streams (wet and dry) by a single standard packer truck (which saves the municipalities money). The material is delivered to the TCR plant where it’s de-bagged and sorted on a picking line. Organic materials are conveyed to a second building for composting.
The system is labor intensive and this, oddly, has generated criticism from some municipal officials who say (and I’m not making this up) that they’d rather pay people in their community to stay on welfare than have them do “that kind of work.”
Anyway, to dispel some of the skepticism TCR President Bill Hett has circulated copies of the company’s most recent annual tonnage report for the provincial environment ministry (a requirement of its Certificate of Approval). The plant received a total of 20,035 tonnes of municipal and IC&I waste last year. About 7,956 tonnes was landfilled–a diversion rate of about 60 per cent. About 2,700 tonnes of material was recycled and 149 tonnes of finished compost was sold (to four farms).
Asked about what happened to the remainder (slightly more than 9,000 tonnes), Hett replies that this was organic material sent to the compost barn. Forty to fifty per cent of this disappears via decomposition and moisture loss and the compost (about 5,000 tonnes) is curing on outdoor pads while the company searches for a large purchaser (to minimize hauling costs and exploit economies of scale).
Hett says the plant could have achieved 75 to 80 per cent diversion except that an experiment to utilize byproducts from a local commercial ethanol producer encountered problems and about 1,500 tonnes of partially composted material had to be disposed. The company found markets for its recycled goods, the average price for which was between $64 and $89 per tonne (which compares favorably with landfill). Hett says the diversion rate for the municipal solid waste portion exceeds 70 per cent and that he charges municipal clients between $60 and $75 per tonne. If special wastes that the plant doesn’t actually process were excluded (such as construction debris) municipal waste diversion would surpass 80 per cent.
To further answer critics, TCR paid consultant C.E. Knutson & Associates of London, Ontario to conduct an audit of the Aylmer facility (submitted April 14, 1999). The consultants worked with an engineering firm to study the plant,
review documents, and interview company and municipal personnel. They concluded that, “Based on the assessment of ‘input’ tonnage to all measurable ‘output’ tonnages, the diversion rate of 60.29% is an accurate and provable performance factor. However, in the auditor’s opinion this figure is conservative in that it includes non-curbside materials received at the transfer station that are not processed through the facility. It also includes no allowance for moisture losses that occur in composting and post-compost curing.”
The consultants noted that the single packer collection truck did not present problems of bag breakage, fluid leaks, or cross-contamination, and they complimented the process for its use of polycoat, aseptics and diapers as bulking agents in the compost system; materials that would otherwise simply be landfilled. If the small amount of compost suitable only for use as a landfill daily cover was counted as diversion (which it currently is not) then diversion rates would be even higher.
TCR recently won two more contracts in Elgin County, but would its system work in a large city? Is it a better scheme than, say, the Blue Box? These are legitimate questions, but hard to resolve. The company has petitioned the CSR: Corporations Supporting Recycling to input all the data from the Tillsonburg/TCR model into its new Integrated Solid Waste Measurement (ISWM) software tool and compare it against other systems in the province. Perhaps this exercise will become the foundation of an agreed-upon system for calculating diversion and an independent verification protocol. The Canadian Standards Association puts its stamp on electronic equipment so I don’t fear dying of shock when I plug in my electric shaver. Why not a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for waste plants, too?
Readers can view the complete text of TCR’s annual tonnage diversion report and the consultant’s audit by looking under the “What’s New” button at our Web site: www.solidwastemag.com