Recap: January Dinner with Cari Rastas Howard

Waterloo Region Landfill
Waterloo Region landfill, aerial, photo from Cari Rastas Howard

It’s 2014 and we’re back! We kicked off our first Dinner of the year by branching out into a new area of tech: waste management. Which may not necessarily sound sexy, but there’s a LOT to learn, and, as expected, there were tonnes of questions. It was seriously cool.

Cari Rastas Howard from Waste Management at the Region joined us, and I’ll definitely say her knowledge of what’s going on in waste management here, as well as what other regions are doing, and what we might do in the future, is pretty encyclopedic.

First off, I’ll share one exciting tidbit: they’re working on a search feature for the Region’s Waste Management website that will enable asking if X can go in Y waste stream. For example, can plastic grocery bags go in the blue box? (Yes, they can. In with the paper, please.) No specific ETA when that’ll be available, but we’ll keep you posted.

Something that may surprise you to learn is that waste management isn’t consistently handled or regulated across the country, though policy is set provincially. Each municipality handles its own residential collection rules, hence differences in programs across the province. Municipalities also set their own rules where no policy is provided by the province. For example, while there’s mandate for collecting blue box materials, there’s nothing about green bins mandated at the provincial level.

Some smaller “markets”, like Nova Scotia or PEI, which have specific needs, handle waste management at the provincial level, and have taken steps like completely banning organics from landfills, but that’s not quite how it works in Ontario. We do, however, work with other municipalities, upon which I’ll elaborate.

Waste management in Waterloo Region includes both urban and rural customers, which present a variety of challenges. The waste streams consist of garbage, recycling (blue box), organics (green bin), and yard waste. Not all services are available to all customers, and not all services are provided at the same frequency, but all in all, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. (Snowbanks are the bane of everyone’s existence…) As an example, apartment buildings and townhouses are considered “commercial” because they are generally run by property management companies, and thus at this point are not part of the green bin program, as those companies handle waste management privately/commercially.

As a side note, while it is true that the blue box program was invented here in Kitchener, recycling as a concept was not, and has actually been going on for millennia. Modern garbage is a fairly new phenomenon, strongly tied to our more urban, consumer-based lifestyle.

For example, there wasn’t a need for waste streams when you could just chuck organics (or broken crockery or what have you, to the delight of future archaeologists) on the midden heap. Organics got fed to farm animals. Nothing came in impenetrable plastic packaging, so practically everything got reused as a matter of course. And yard waste? What was that? At most, if you cleared a lot of brush, you’d just burn it. (Please do not attempt this next time we have a storm.)

When we were more primitive about larger scale waste management, we had dumps (and some places still do). The difference between a dump and a landfill comes down to two main things: environmental controls and expense. Landfills are designed very carefully to be air- and watertight, recover waste water and gasses, and be friendly to the neighbours. This costs a lot of money and resources to do well, but trust me, you’re glad it’s being done.

Landfills are divided into cells, which are basically big, rectangular pits. Currently we’re on the last available cell in the north area of our landfill, after which we’ll move to the southern side, which will make the Waterloo residents more happy and the Kitchener residents less so.

To build a new cell, the aforementioned pit is dug, and the dirt moved elsewhere, since it will be used later. Cells get a 3m clay liner to seal the base, then over that goes a later of gravel. Then leachate pipes are installed to handle run-off (“garbage juice”), and that leachate is treated as any other waste water.

There is a methane gas collection system running through the cells, which gathers, cleans, and uses the gas to generate electricity, which is then sold back to the local power grid. The methane from our landfill currently generates enough electricity to power about 1400 homes. There are 200 on-site ground water monitoring wells, which are regularly checked to ensure that nothing that might leak can get anywhere near the city’s ground water. A lot of work and money goes into making landfills as friendly to the environment and neighbours as they can be.

Of course, when the landfill was commissioned, it didn’t have many local neighbours like it does now, so occasionally there are tensions. People buying or building homes in the vicinity of the landfill have a clause in their real estate contracts that explicitly states that they know there is a working landfill nearby, and that it’s not going away any time soon. And hey, at least it’s not a dump with resident bears… (However, one reason we highly recommend the landfill tour is to see just how much wildlife is out there.)

Estimates are that the current landfill has 15-20 years of life left. That said, they’ve been saying that for at least the last decade, so everything we can do to divert waste from it helps extend its life. No new greenfields (landfill sites) have been approved in the province for as long as Cari’s been working in Waste Management, which is over a decade. And it takes at least 10 years to get permissions and start developing a new waste management site (e.g. processing facility).

So where does our waste go? Well, remember the aforementioned working with other municipalities? That’s part of it. Garbage goes to the Erb St. landfill, as do most recyclables. Paper is separated and sent off to Region of Niagara for processing. Yard waste goes to Cambridge for processing into compost. Green bin organics go to Guelph, also for processing into compost.

At our landfill, garbage is dumped in the current cell, and over the course of the day new additions are compacted, and at the end of the day everything’s covered with a layer of dirt. This helps keep material from blowing around, and controls odour, seagulls, and other pests. Recyclables go to the Nyle Ludolph Materials Recycling Centre (named after the father of the blue box program). This includes stuff like glass, plastic, paper, and metal. As aforementioned, paper gets sorted out and sent away for processing. Various high-tech sorting systems sort the other materials, and this is where our first lasers come in. Optical sorting is used to separate three streams of plastics. It’s fun to watch pop cans go flying through the air during sorting.

Interestingly, though there are millions of dollars in tech at work in this facility, the Region still employs people to do hand sorting of recyclables, particularly plastics. It results in more accurate, “cleaner” sorted materials, which is of greater value when the results are sent away for recycling. And man, do you ever have to focus. That line moves fast. This is why each person basically has one type of item to sort, like yogurt containers. And as it is, about 3% of what comes in in blue boxes ends up in the landfill anyway. Sort carefully, folks! (And yes, rinsing out cans and things is helpful.)

Some municipalities (not ours) engage in “dirty MRF” processing (MRF = Materials Recovery Facility). That means they open up garbage bags that come in and sort out the recyclables from the garbage. Why the “dirty” part is included is probably obvious…

The green bin contents go to Guelph for processing as their facility is optimally designed for the heat, humidity, and oxygen levels that make microbes happiest and enable them to work fastest. Organics can be fully composted there in three months. Compare that to yard waste composting in Cambridge, for example, which is done outdoors, and which takes about eight months to complete.

So, that’s where things are today. What are other current waste management options now and in the future? And where do more lasers come in? Well, here are the major ones Cari outlined.

Landfill Mining

This is pretty much just what it sounds like. Digging into existing and “mature” landfills, removing dirt layers and contents, and sorting through it for useful stuff, like recyclables. Back in the day, before recycling programs and the like, everything just went into the landfill, and since they’re sealed, that stuff is largely still there as is.

Additionally, sometimes disasters provide a potential bonanza. For example, Barrie had a tornado in 1985, and in the clean-up, the focus was more on clearing away debris and rebuilding at the time, rather than carefully sorting waste streams. So there’s a fair bit of potentially valuable material buried there. Removing some of the dirt layers, recyclable materials and whatnot frees up a fair bit of “air space” in the landfill, extending its lifespan, though only by a few years. In Barrie’s case, they had five years or less of lifespan left at the landfill, so every little bit helped at the time.

On the negative side, this is difficult and time-consuming, and tends to be very, very pungent. In Waterloo Region at present, our needs are not urgent enough for the cons to outweigh the pros of this option. Plus, it doesn’t involve any lasers. 🙂

Mechanical Biological Separation

Sounds like we’d run everything through a giant robot stomach, doesn’t it? Not quite… First all the garbage goes through a mechanical sorting process, similar to what is currently done with recyclables, but more on the “dirty MRF” side of things. Screens, trommels, magnets, optical sorting (lasers), and hand sorting remove recyclable materials in the garbage. The rest then goes through a biological process to compost/digest any remaining organics. What results includes recyclables, compost, energy, and a considerably smaller “remainder”, i.e. garbage destined for the landfill.

There are a bunch of benefits to this process:

  • 36 million kgC02 equivalents avoided annually
  • moderate to significant quantities of usable energy produced (kinda like how we generate electricity from methane)
  • ~36K tonnes of waste would go into the landfill with this process, that’s 40% of the current 93K tonnes, so a significant reduction in volume.

Thermal Treatment

No, this is not quite the same as just lighting a big pile of garbage on fire. Thank goodness. This actually includes several potential processes that use heat to break waste down to base elements. This can be done with plasma arc torches (as cool as lasers), gasification, or other extreme heat applications. The result is ash, from which metals can be recovered. The output includes some recyclables, a lot of energy, and a very small remainder. Some of this remaining waste may have to go into the landfill, but some of it can potentially be reused as aggregate for construction or road base (depending on available technology).

The air output from these processes is thoroughly cleaned with biofilters and scrubbers. The province’s requirements are pretty stringent. Algonquin Energy from Waste is a privately run and currently operating facility that mainly handles commercial waste. And the Durham York Energy Centre is another such municipal facility, scheduled to begin operations this fall.

Some benefits to this process:

  • 30 million kgCO2 equivalents avoided annually
  • significant quantities of usable energy are produced
  • ~6.6K tonnes of waste could go into the landfill with this process, which is a mere 7% of what ends up there currently
  • additional recyclables recovery (metals)
  • even the resulting waste can potentially be used (the ash).

At present, the Region of Waterloo is leaning toward the thermal treatment option, but no final decisions have been made yet. (They regularly have public input and consultation, so make your voice heard!) And of course, this doesn’t mean that they’re proposing stopping or not requiring curb-side separation of blue box and green bin recyclables where those programs are in place. It’s more cost- and effort-effective to source-separate those materials. It makes sense to remove and reclaim as much as we can using the technologies available, keeping them out of the landfill.

As Waterloo Region continues to grow, waste management will continue to be an important issue to manage well. Fortunately, there are plenty of smart folks like Cari on the case, and ever-evolving technologies will help us do it smarter, more efficiently, and more cost-effectively.

We also highly recommend taking a landfill tour, which will show you the tip (where garbage is dumped into the current cell), the recycling centre, and other features. It’s incredibly eye-opening (like just how much garbage our Region generates daily). These tours are run several times a year, so keep an eye on Twitter or Facebook for more info.

To get in touch with Region of Waterloo Waste Management, like them on Facebook, find them on Twitter, email at waste@regionofwaterloo.ca, or call at 519-883-5100.

Huge thanks again to Cari for the incredibly educational presentation, answering a gazillion questions, and for the very handy reusable grocery bags!

Stay warm and stay tuned for the announcement for our February Dinner, coming up shortly…

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