Our green bins’ ‘dirty little secret’

By Stu Averill

In the December 6 issue of the Glebe Report, I read with interest Jennifer Humphries’ account of her guided tour with Shawn Menard and other city councillors of the industrial plants that process the contents of our blue and black recycling bins. As a minerals exploration geologist, I have long had an interest in how raw materials are processed and have taken every opportunity to tour such plants. Memorable visits have included the old E. B. Eddy paper mill at the Chaudière Falls, the gold mill of the historic Dome Mine at Timmins, and the diamond-recovery plants of the Ekati and Diavik mines in Nunavut.

Humphries mentions that the tour group hopes also to visit the Renewi organics composting site operated by Orgaworld Canada Ltd. on Hawthorne Road in the east end of Ottawa. If the tour goes ahead, she may be as surprised and upset as I was when I discovered what actually happens to our green bin contents and yard waste.

Compost – what used to happen

For years I had been taking my pickup truck to the Trail Road site, where our yard waste was formerly processed, to buy a load of compost for my lawn and garden. Their composting process was simple and environmentally benign. Yard waste was piled in “windrows” 50 to 100 metres long and of a sufficient height (about 3 metres) to attain the core temperature required for composting – the piles were visibly steaming!

To ensure that all the yard waste reached these temperatures, the piles were periodically turned by a front-end loader. When fully cured, the compost was screened to remove any uncured bits coarser than one to two centimetres. It was then moved to a new pile where customers could load it. The product was wonderful black organic soil completely free of viable weed seeds and almost devoid of plastic and other foreign matter. A full pickup load cost only $25!

What changed?

Fast forward to May 2018. When I made my annual spring pilgrimage to Trail Road, I was informed they no longer composted yard waste because the city was now trucking it to the Orgaworld plant. Readers may recall the reason for this change. When implementing the green-bin plan for composting household organic waste, the city assumed an uptake of about 80,000 tonnes annually and structured its contract with Orgaworld accordingly. But initial uptake was only about 25,000 tonnes so the city began to pick up yard and household organic waste together rather than separately and deliver this mixed material to Orgaworld. More recently, with the stated objective of further increasing green-bin uptake, the city started to accept both dog poop and household organic waste in plastic bags, even though completely separating these non-compostable bags from organic waste after they have been mashed together in a garbage truck must be very difficult, if not impossible.

On the compost trail

Back at Trail Road in 2018, the attendant suggested that I try to source my compost directly from Orgaworld. I checked their website. It was surprisingly brief – just one page – and uninformative, though it did note that they pre-treat the waste in closed, odour-free tunnels for a week to start the composting process prior to piling it for curing (the single-stage process used previously for yard waste at Trail Road). I then called Orgaworld to check compost availability. I was told “Oh, we only start the composting process here – we cure it at a different site.” I was informed, much to my astonishment, that this site was in Pembroke! So our household organic waste, yard waste and dog poop are all delivered first to the east end of the city, then hauled in greenhouse-gas-belching diesel trucks 150 km back across the city to Pembroke. How green is this?

Pembroke is at the northern tip of the farmed portion of the Ottawa Valley. Surely some of those big trucks must be hauling the finished compost back to Ottawa where it is needed. But when I called the Pembroke site I was told “No, you have to come here to get it.” The cost of a pickup load was still only $25, but I would have to make a three-hour, 300-km round trip, burn $50 of fuel and generate a bunch of greenhouse gases to get it!

Dirty little secret

I have told others over the last year about my experience with Ottawa’s organic-waste recycling program, and no one was aware of the Pembroke connection. Politically, the Pembroke curing site seems to be Ottawa’s “dirty little green-bin secret.” What is green about a program that involves so much trucking? What is the extra cost of having to tunnel-process a large amount of benign yard waste only because it is now being mixed in our garbage trucks with a smaller amount of putrid, plastic-bagged green-bin waste? If the compost is fit for use on our yards, why is it being cured and stored at a site 150 km away rather than close to the Ottawa receiving plant? Is the Pembroke storage site just another waste-disposal site?

Instead of waiting for an invitation from Orgaworld to a sanitized, “feel-good” tour of the company’s Ottawa plant, Humphries and Menard may wish to gas up their vehicles, make the three-hour, 300-km round trip to Pembroke to the company’s compost storage.

Oh, and if you happen to find a clean pile of the old, pre-plastics compost, please bring back a few bags. I need it for my garden next spring!

Stu Averill is a Glebe resident, a geologist and a gardener.

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