BioCycle Magazine

Cart-Based Organics Collection. Citizens Drive 65 Percent Diversion System


Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

For better or worse, citizens opposing waste management projects usually end up being labeled as NIMBYs — not in my backyard. This could have been the case in Halifax, Nova Scotia but instead, the citizens took their opposition one step further, basically taking the design for an acceptable waste management system into their own hands. In the process, they laid out the foundation for an integrated strategy for the four municipalities that now make up the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) that was adopted and resulted in a program which became fully operational in January, 1999.

The HRM has a population base of 350,000, with annual waste generation of 260,000 metric tons. For years, the municipalities — Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and the more rural Halifax County — relied on a landfill, which was located in Halifax County. In the early 1990s, it was discovered that the landfill, built in a wetlands area, had caused severe environmental damage that affected nearby residents. Ultimately, HRM paid approximately $5 million as compensation to the community and had to buy out the adjacent homes. The situation prompted a long review process to determine a new waste management strategy for the region. It was decided to site and build an incinerator closer to the urban center of the region.

Citizens living in the municipality of Halifax County were relieved that they wouldn’t be the site of the new incinerator. However, the Nova Scotia Ministry of Environment, which had to review and accept the incineration plan, ended up rejecting it due to economic issues. “When the incinerator was turned down by the province, it became obvious that the four municipalities would need a new landfill, and since space wasn’t available in the urban area, there was no doubt that the landfill would be back in the county,” says Ken Donnelly of LURA Consulting, a solid waste management firm in Halifax, and a resident of the county. “The old landfill had been run by the urban officials. I went to the mayor of Halifax County and suggested that the county take over the landfill siting process and run the landfill. The mayor asked how they would get support for the landfill. It was felt that the only way to do it was to open the process up to the entire community, which had gotten organized both around the old landfill and the siting of the incinerator. We decided to open it up and let the community dictate the siting requirements.”

The outcome was a Community Stakeholders Committee (CSC), which in the end, involved 500 residents. The committee began meeting in October, 1994. (Coincidentally, the first meeting was on the same day that the Nova Scotia provincial government announced that the HRM would be formed by April 1, 1996, amalgamating the four municipal political bodies.) All CSC decision making was consensus based, meaning that everyone participating had to agree on every decision. “It was a stressful process, but was the only approach we could imagine, given the result of the siting process over the incinerator,” says Donnelly, who was asked to serve as the facilitator of the CSC.


When designing its siting criteria, the CSC started with the provincial requirements. Then it added in community constraints. For example, the province requires that no landfill be sited within one kilometer (km) of a residential dwelling. “The CSC said that the landfill cannot be within 3 km of a residential dwelling with a well,” notes Donnelly. “If it is piped water, it can be within 1 km.” The next layer was opportunity criteria, such as proximity of the landfill to the center of generation, closeness to a Series 100 highway (large roadway) to ensure there is a transportation infrastructure, etc.

One of the most important criteria, however, was the CSC’s decision to not put any raw materials into the new landfill, particularly raw organics that could create gas migration and leachate problems, lead to erosion, etc. “The group concluded that rather than have to spend so much time and money maintaining waste degrading at its own rate in a landfill, it made more sense to force it to degrade in a controlled environment, accelerated as much as possible, and landfill a stable waste,” Donnelly explains. It was this decision to only landfill stabilized residuals that led to the current integrated waste management system developed for the HRM.


The four municipalities had residential curbside collection in place for recyclables at the time the CSC was developing its strategy. Stakeholders felt that basing its collection and management program on source separation was the best route to take, especially because it saw a need to educate residents about waste and how to take responsibility for managing it. “The CSC believed that if the system only relied upon mixed waste processing at a centralized plant, people wouldn’t learn anything about waste management and not make proper purchasing decisions,” he says. “Ensuring the program was based on source separation meant we also would see reduction and reuse.”

The CSC strategy specified that waste be separated into four streams: recyclables, compostables, trash and household hazardous waste. Backyard composting was encouraged to the greatest extent possible, but it was recognized that it couldn’t be a solution for 100 percent of the organics generated. The plan also called for construction of a household hazardous waste facility, a state-of-the-art landfill, a front-end mixed waste processing and back-end stabilization facility, and composting plants.


After 13 months and over 50 committee meetings — with an average of 60 to 70 people in attendance each time — the CSC strategy was presented to and approved by the four municipalities. Formal elections for the HRM Council were held in October, 1995. When the regional government came into effect in April, 1996, it approved the strategy. At that point, HRM staff and council were responsible for determining how to carry out the strategy. The CSC members became the watchdogs to ensure that it was implemented correctly. The process involved issuing RFPs and selecting vendors for various services and equipment, going through the actual siting process for the landfill and mixed waste processing/stabilization facility, determining collection routes and frequencies, etc.

Part of the implementation strategy was communication with the public to build support for the plan. CSC members who had spent 13 months developing the system felt a certain amount of stewardship and ownership in its implementation, and actively participated as “community ambassadors to sell the system,” says Donnelly. Some of the municipal politicians didn’t like the system. “They balked at the price, the front-end processing and stabilization and so forth,” he adds. “It was very important that the CSC had set the criteria for siting of the landfill based on what materials would go into the landfill and not just the geographical issues. Every time it looked like the project may be off the rails, CSC members would go to council and remind them that the landfill site choice was based on source separation of organics and other materials. If they were not going to have curbside collection of organics or not have a landfill ban on organics or not have it cover commercial organics, they would not support the landfill.”

The final solid waste management system includes the following:

– Source separation of organics, recyclables and trash, with biweekly collection of organics and trash; weekly collection of recyclables (biweekly in the rural areas of the county);

– Creation of eight collection zones (from 25 before amalgamation) with six haulers;

– Use of aerated carts for organics collection;

– One site that includes a mixed waste processing facility designed to handle 119,000 metric tons/year of MSW; a 13 channel agitated bed composting system to process the mixed waste after recyclables are removed; and a landfill for stabilized waste. HRM owns these facilities, with design/build/operation given to Mirror Nova Scotia;

– Two separate composting facilities with total processing capacity of 61,000 metric tons/year. Both facilities are privately owned and operated, each with put or pay guarantees ($68.60/metric ton to one compost facility and $65.50 to the other) by HRM of 20,000 metric tons/year. (See “Composting Key to Meeting Landfill Organics Ban,” February, 1999); and

– Expansion of an existing materials recovery facility.

The total solid waste stream is roughly 55 percent residential and 45 percent commercial. The institutional/commercial/industrial (ICI) sector is responsible for its own collection. Tipping fees are designed to encourage ICI source separation. They are set at $68/metric ton for separated organics and $100/metric ton for mixed waste (increasing soon to $106).

Not all of the 260,000 metric tons generated annually will go through the new HRM system. “About 40,000 to 60,000 metric tons/year are construction and demolition debris that go to private operators,” says Jim Bauld, HRM’s operations coordinator of waste resources. “Recyclables from the commercial sector, particularly the fibers, are captured by the private sector as well.” As a result, roughly 190,000 tons/year are left for the HRM facilities and contractors to process.
 One of the keys to the success of the new system is ensuring flows to the composting facilities — not just because of HRM’s put or pay contracts but because of the inability to put unprocessed waste directly into the landfill (thus staying within daily capacity of the mixed waste plant). “The design capacity is 460 tons/day coming in the front end of the mixed waste facility,” says Bauld. “All material has to be processed and stabilized through that plant. If we are over capacity on the front-end, we still can’t dispose of anything directly into the landfill. We need to keep the flow of organics to composting.” All facilities accept materials on a five-day-a-week basis.


In designing its program for residential separation and collection of organics, the HRM had several models to follow. Both Lunenburg and Colchester Counties in Nova Scotia, as well as the East Prince area of Prince Edward Island (a neighboring province) require household source separation and collection of organics in aerated carts (about 65,000 carts between the three programs). While HRM staff had data from these programs, the council wanted to run its own collection pilot to determine the best alternative — especially given the difference in scale (almost 100,000 households in HRM, at least triple the size of Lunenburg and much larger than Colchester and East Prince).

In September, 1996, a request for proposals was issued for provision of containers for collection of source separated organics. “We were silent on the technology, and didn’t specify whether they be rigid, plastic or paper,” says Bauld. A plastic bag and a paper bag manufacturer responded, as did three companies that market aerated plastic carts. A technical committee assembled by HRM did an economic analysis on the use of plastic bags versus carts. “Another member of the committee and I determined that the average household would spend on plastic or paper bags in approximately six years the equivalent value of an aerated cart and mini bin, its delivery and electronic tracking,” says Bauld. “And the carts are under warranty for ten years. A bag-based system also has repercussions for collection. We couldn’t collect organics every other week due to putrescibles. The material could go anaerobic in the plastic bag without the air exchange that you get in an aerated cart. Furthermore, the bag-based system would result in 100,000 plastic bags/week going to the composting facilities, where the operators would have needed to invest in bag breaking equipment, and then we’d be faced with disposal of 100,000 bags/week in the landfill.” The technical committee determined that the cart-based approach would be roughly $10/household/year less than a bag-based system.

Once it was determined that bags were not preferred, the HRM short-listed SSI Schaefer, Otto and Rehrig Pacific to participate in a pilot project that ran from October to December, 1996. About 2,000 homes were selected, and 660 of each cart were delivered. Due to the council’s request to build some competition into the award of the contract, the order for 97,000 carts (64 gallon size) was split 90/10 between SSI and Rehrig Pacific. The cost of the carts are covered by the overall tax rate for solid waste services, but equal about $1/household/ month. Total annual collection costs are $55/household/year.

Distribution of the carts began on July 1, 1998 and ended in November. About 800 to 1,000 carts were delivered each day. HRM staff set up neighborhood assistance teams which delivered the household mini bins (used by residents in their kitchens to collect organics), a collection schedule, stickers and other information. An electronic tracking system designed by East Can Geomatics was used to link the carts with each property. The radio frequency identification tag on each cart was scanned into an on-board computer; a serial number on the cart was recorded by voice. This same tracking system can be used in the future to log in data about participation, contaminants, billing if HRM switches to a user pay system, etc.

Most of the six collection contractors retrofitted rear packer trucks to accommodate the carts by putting lifting mechanisms on the back. (The biweekly collection schedule made it feasible to still use one truck for trash and organics.) Several bought split trucks for cocollecting organics and recyclables or trash and recyclables. The HRM set up a mass balance flow between the eight zones. Organics are collected from four zones one week, and the other four the next. Trash is collected from each of the four on the alternating weeks. “We know that each collection area generates so much per year in organics, recyclables and refuse based on the number of homes in each zone,” says Bauld. “We also know we have to get an even flow to the two composting facilities, and track that on a weekly basis, and daily if necessary. We also track the flow to the mixed waste processing plant and the materials recovery facility. Adjustments can be made in delivery from zones that exceed the daily limit.”


All food residuals (including meats and seafood), yard trimmings, boxboard, sawdust and wood shavings and soiled and nonrecyclable paper are accepted in the source separation program. Households were told to begin using the carts immediately, even though composting capacity didn’t come on line until December, 1998. “We wanted to get people accustomed to using the carts and get feedback on contaminants,” explains Bauld. “That way, when the compost plants did come on line, the organics stream would be of good quality.” If contamination levels are more than ten percent, the cost to handle the contaminants is HRM’s responsibility. Revenue from sale of the finished product is shared between the composters and HRM (yet another incentive to maximize the quality of the incoming feedstock).

During January, 1999 — given the surge of Christmas trees — flows to both composting facilities were 100 tons/day. In February, the flows dropped off substantially to 68 tons/day, reflecting no trees nor any yard trimmings during that time of year. Overall, residents seem to be pleased with the cart-based system. A poll taken by Corporate Research Associates of Halifax in November, 1998 found that of the 85 percent of households using the carts, two-thirds found the containers to be very or generally convenient to use. More than eight in ten of the residents surveyed said they strongly (45 percent) or generally (37 percent) approve of the region’s new composting program.

Households have a limit of ten bags/trash setout every two weeks. That limit was based on harmonizing the separate solid waste programs that existed before amalgamation, says Bauld, who notes that the majority of residents don’t come close to setting out ten bags each time. The CSC strategy does include a user pay component. “That is the final component of the strategy that would have to be worked out with council,” he explains. “Achieving HRM’s goal of 65 percent diversion by 2000 will be the driver; HRM achieved 51 percent diversion for January/February 1999. If we feel we are not achieving our overall objective, we can go back to council to get approval for a specific user pay process.”


Overall, the new waste management system has a gross cost of $32 million/year. Capital costs include $8.5 million for the carts, mini bins and tracking system; $24 million for the mixed waste processing system and the back end stabilization plant; $20 million for the new landfill (which opened in January, 1999) and access roads; and $500,000 for the upgrade to the MRF. The mixed waste processing and stabilization operation employs 85 people. Large items are sorted out for recycling or disposal; the remaining waste is placed on conveyor lines, where sorters recover recyclable materials. From there, the waste stream goes through a series of grinders and trommels — first six-inch and then two-inch screens — before it is loaded into the composting system (using the IPS technology). “Material is pushed through in 18 days so it goes through the thermophilic stage before it is put into the landfill,” says Bauld. The mixed waste processing and composting facilities are in separate buildings, 40,000 sq.ft. and 50,000 sq.ft., respectively.

The CSC strategy included the election of a community monitoring committee to oversee the operation of the mixed waste processing, stabilization and landfill facilities. “The committee can monitor for litter on the road, the time of day the trucks go in if that bothers people in the community, inspect leachate ponds and so forth — all within reason and giving the operator an adequate amount of notice,” says Donnelly. “This was set up to ensure that there are no negative impacts to the adjacent homeowners and landowners. At one time, the CSC envisaged that the monitoring committee also would oversee the composting facilities, but in the end, it was felt those plants were adequately covered by separate regulations.” An interim monitoring committee was in place for several years to make sure that all the stipulations in the strategy were being met. Recently, a community election was held to fill all the seats on the committee.

Looking back, Donnelly says that members of the CSC have a strong sense of accomplishment, given where they were when they started and where the program is now. “There was a lot of concern after doing 13 months of work that the strategy might not come to fruition, so there is a great deal of pride and feeling of satisfaction on the part of the people involved. They believe they did a very good thing for their community.” By Nora Goldstein and Kevin Gray

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