ritish mathematical physicist Lord Kelvin once said, “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science.”
Which brings us to Statistics Canada’s recent biannual release of 2012 waste management data. The data is presented without commentary — cold and dispassionate. The way it should be.
For organic waste it shows that it shows that the diversion in Canada has increased by about 11 per cent from 2010 (Table 1). This increase is notable because it shows that organic waste diversion rebounded after decreasing from 2008 to 2010, likely as a result of challenging economic times.
Table 1. Overview of Organic Waste Diversion in Canada (2004-2012)
Most of this new statistical increase came from Quebec, whose organic waste diversion clambered back to 2008 levels after being clobbered in 2010. British Columbia and Alberta made solid gains too.
However, if one compares 2012 diversion with 2008 areas, the strongest gains are found in B.C., Ontario and Manitoba. Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick’s organic waste diversion are declining. Overall, what the data shows is that organic waste diversion has increased by 60 per cent since 2004, but that it is currently in decline for some mature Maritime programs, heading to program maturity in Ontario, with the strongest growth currently in B.C.
How accurate are the Statistics Canada data? When looking at Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) 2012 datacall numbers, an estimated 930,000 tonnes of residential organic waste were diverted and one can infer that approximately 140,000 tonnes per year was diverted by the IC&I sector (i.e. to equal the 1.070 million tonnes diverted in Ontario in Table 1). However, the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) and Regional Public Works Commissioners Ontario Organic Waste Management Report 2013-2033, which I prepared using 2011 data, estimates that about 1.25 million tonnes of organic waste was diverted in Ontario, with 300,000 tonnes of this coming from the more difficult to estimate IC&I sector. While the Statistics Canada data looks reasonable for Ontario, it also points out the challenge of estimating organic waste diversion from the IC&I sector, and there is a good possibility that not all of this diversion is being captured by Statistics Canada.
When normalizing the data on a per capita basis, it is clear that many provinces are bunched around the Canadian average, which currently sits at about 71 kg per capita each year (Figure 1). Nova Scotia, which banned organic waste from landfill in 1999, leads organic waste diversion at more than twice the Canadian average, although notably it has been declining since 2008. B.C. has been showing the strongest growth, overpassing Ontario to take the number two spot in 2010.
Figure 1. Overview of Per Captia Organic Waste Diversion in some Provinces
While I would not say organic waste diversion in Canada has plateaued, it is likely that’s where we are headed. Yet it’s not as if there are no organics left to be diverted, or no room for improvement.
The OWMA/RPWCO Ontario Organic Waste Management Report 2013-2033 includes a detailed identification and assessment of barriers to growth and investment and end markets.
Barriers to growth and investment include:
no provincial strategy, which would provide a signal to the market
length of time and cost to obtain approvals
poorly operating facilities, which makes it more difficult to site new facilities.
Barriers for end markets include:
low market value (currently tipping fee: product revenue 90 per cent: 10 per cent)
inability to add value to compost
difficulty having compost specified for various established uses
competition from other products, particularly unregulated ones
poor understanding or appreciation of compost value in the marketplace.
It is estimated, through calculation, that Canadians generate about 9.7 million tonnes of organic waste, or about 30 per cent of what is disposed.
In round numbers, that means each Canadian throws out between $170-$375 worth of food annually. So how do we get past where we are?”
That means that we are currently capturing only about 25 per cent of organic waste generated. Furthermore, if we roughly assume that half of organic waste is food waste and half of that is edible food waste, we have 2.4 million tonnes per year of edible food waste that’s thrown out.
The barriers to organic waste diversion are diverse, but not unique. They include high cost, lack of policy direction and low product value.
While municipalities have a political mechanism that can be used to make decisions that are not strictly cost based, the IC&I’s key decisionmaking mechanism is still monetary, although corporate social responsibility (CSR) considerations have changed this for some.
In provinces such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, a relatively small amount of waste is produced and waste disposal is generally quite inexpensive.
It becomes very difficult to identify a critical mass of organic waste that can be cost effectively diverted. Nova Scotia, which is in the same boat, removed this barrier by banning organic waste from its landfills. In some cases there is political will, particularly for municipal organic waste, to pay a premium for diversion (e.g. parts of Ontario).
This choice is typically made in front of the backdrop of shrinking or non-existent disposal capacity.
It is reasonable to conclude that the key barrier to organic waste diversion is cost and all other barriers are ancillary. The key way to overcome the cost barrier is to alter the playing field that makes waste disposal more expensive and waste diversion more cost competitive.
The only way for that to transpire is to implement a quantitative driver that changes how we are able to manage organic waste. This could include a landfill tax, which adds a premium to landfilling, with the funds hopefully being used to fund waste diversion programs. I think a more effective mechanism is to set up a landfill ban of organic waste. This targets the waste in question, rather than penalizing all waste going to landfill.
The empirical evidence is clear as can be seen by the impact of Nova Scotia’s ban. However, this approach does have some potential impact on the ability to capture carbon credits but changing the marketplace to favour diversion could potentially make up for this lost revenue. Other Canadian jurisdictions have started to adopt the concept of a landfill ban or give it a serious look.
While the diversion of organic waste is strong, in Canada, significant real opportunities exist for additional reduction and diversion. Maybe we could start by polishing off our dinner plates.