Waste diversion needs 21st-century tune-up not complete overhaul

Toronto Star, Comment, Aug 24, 2009

Katrina Miller, Campaigns Director for the Toronto Environmental Alliance

Walk down any street on garbage day and you will see Toronto's commitment to diverting organics – odd is the house without a green bin in front.

With more than 90 per cent of single-family households participating, Toronto boasts the largest curbside composting program in North America. That makes us a leader in municipal waste diversion and that's not counting the current rollout of green bins in apartment buildings. Considering this, recent criticism of the program has been troubling.

There is no doubt that the program has flaws.

The business of collecting and processing massive amounts of organic material is not as simple as a backyard composter. Even with those flaws, Toronto turned 94,201 tonnes of green bin material into compost in 2008 (10,000 tonnes more than 2007). That means 2,600 trucks didn't have to go to a Michigan landfill. Clearly, the program is worth filling your green bin for. Well done, Toronto.

That doesn't mean we should ignore problems. Residents of the 5,000 apartment buildings scheduled to participate in the green bin service by next August want the best program we can provide. Current participants need assurance that they are part of a program that is getting better all of the time. After five years of city-wide service, it is about time we review our green bin system for ways to make it better.

Lets start with contaminants in the green bin. The plastic bag liners and diapers we are allowed to put into our green bins have to be separated out, possibly contaminating the compost along the way. The City of Toronto says allowing these materials increases participation by making the system convenient. But the result is 20 per cent of what we put into the green bin ends up as garbage. City waste officials claim this is acceptable. We believe Torontonians have a higher standard and are willing to change the way we collect organics.

For example, single-use plastic bags are quickly becoming a waste of the past. Common sense and Toronto's new 5-cent fee mean fewer people are coming home with plastic bags, which is far better than putting them in our blue boxes or our green bins. For those who still want to avoid the "yuck" factor when emptying their bin, the market now offers paper and compostable bags that are much more suitable. Toronto and its residents should weigh in: Are we ready to trade in a little convenience for cleaner compost and less garbage?

One of the biggest flaws right now may be the perception that the program lacks integrity. Recent allegations that compostables are going to facilities with questionable composting practices or, worse yet, ending up in landfills seem overblown. However, these allegations indicate a need for more transparency about how the system, from curbside to compost heap, is held accountable and provides the quality Torontonians expect. The city must respond swiftly to any complaints that bags of compost are being loaded into trucks bound for Michigan and can easily do so by reviewing the sorting and loading practices at its transfer stations. We call on the city to publicly resolve this concern this fall.

A more complex issue is who composts our green bin waste and to what standard.

We create too much organic waste for the city to process, so it hires private facilities to deal with the rest. While the city can easily monitor and assure quality at the city-owned Dufferin Organics Processing Facility, it is unclear how it oversees private contractors and responds to quality control issues.

The composting facilities that have come under fire in the press have been private ones like Orgaworld, not Dufferin. Fortunately, Toronto plans to build more city-owned and operated composting facilities, which makes us optimistic that overall quality of the compost will improve.

Still, some portion of our green bin waste will have to go to private facilities. More transparent monitoring and reporting methods are needed so that we are assured contractors have the same integrity as we do when we walk our green bins to the corner every week.

More is at stake here than just the future of Toronto's compost. The city must make constant improvements in its system so that it can serve as a model for others in North America and, more specifically, in Ontario. Queen's Park has a public commitment to achieve 60 per cent waste diversion province-wide and compost is an essential part of meeting that goal.

New provincial standards for compost quality are likely to be out this fall and new programs to implement and support composting programs province-wide are in the making.

Toronto's leadership is needed now more than ever to help bring the rest of Ontario into the 21st century of waste diversion.


Original article no longer available