Landfill Ban Stimulates Composting Programs in Nova Scotia

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

On the East coast of Canada and almost completely surrounded by water, Nova Scotia is connected to the North American continent by only a small strip of land. While not large in population (935,000), the province has a large rural sector. Halifax, the capital city, has a population of 359,000. The second largest municipality, Cape Breton Regional Municipality, has a population of about 120,000. The rest of the people reside in rural towns, villages and county areas. Nova Scotia’s primary industries are entrenched in natural resources, fishing, farming, mining and tourism.

Because its very way of life depends on the environment, Nova Scotia released a Solid Waste-Resource Management Strategy in 1995, which included something extraordinary: a November, 1998 ban on landfilling and incineration of organics. Since the release of the strategy, Nova Scotia has made considerable progress in meeting its goals: All open burning of municipal solid waste has ceased (as late as 1996, 20 municipal sites openly burned their solid waste); Curbside recycling is available to 95 percent of municipal residents, with the remaining five percent to be reached in May, 2000; Only 18 municipal landfills remain from the hundreds in late 1970; All municipalities promote backyard composting; Curbside collection of all organics, including meat, fish and bones, is available to 70 percent of residents; Hundreds of jobs have been created as wastes are being turned into resources.

A 44 percent diversion rate was achieved as of September 30, 1999. Composting is a significant contributor. Its impact is expected to increase, as more facilities, large and small, are starting up in response to the ban on landfilling organics. A brief summary of composting activity in each region of the province is provided below.


Linked to the mainland by a causeway, Cape Breton Island (pop. 158,000) is very rural in nature. All municipalities have participated in promoting backyard composting and leaf and yard trimmings composting. However, because of economic conditions, implementing full-scale curbside organics collection and composting is only taking place in two pilot projects.

Cape Breton Municipality is demonstrating a vermicomposting operation inside an abandoned greenhouse. Its initial capacity is 120 tons/year of all institutional, commercial and industrial (ICI) organics, including meat, fish, and bones. The municipality utilizes Nova Scotia’s only MSW incinerator. Because of the investment made in this facility, which generates electricity for sale to the power grid, movement toward more organics recycling infrastructure has been slow. Progress also has been impeded by a long-term downturn in the economy. At a pilot project at the Victoria County landfill, organic material is accepted on a drop-off basis for windrow composting. Capacity here also is small.


Region #2 (pop. 80,000) is comprised of three counties, two of which are very rural in nature. Guysborough (pop. 11,000) and Antigonish (pop. 20,000) Counties both have designed composting facilities for their landfills. Construction has yet to begin. Pictou County (pop. 50,000) has already begun full-scale centralized composting (see sidebar).


The Northern Region (pop. 107,000) is made up of Colchester (pop. 51,000), Cumberland (pop. 34,000) and East Hants (pop. 22,000) Counties. Colchester is home to the second full-scale composting facility developed in Nova Scotia, which has been in operation since 1996 (see sidebar).

Another composting facility, operated by Fundy Compost Unlimited, treats biosolids from a municipal plant in an open windrow. Processing capacity is 13,200 tons/year.

While there is a complete design for Cumberland County’s centralized composting facility, it has yet to be built. The county is the only area that does not have municipally sponsored collection of residential solid waste; each homeowner must contract with a hauler. With the advent of a new composting facility, it is expected that the county will offer curbside collection to residents, thereby increasing diversion of solid waste from its landfill.

East Hants County has opted to send organic residuals to a private facility in Halifax. An agreement was reached just before the November 30, 1998 disposal ban.


It has been just over one year since the facilities in Halifax Regional Municipality (pop. 358,000) were in full operation (see “Composting Key To Meeting Landfill Organics Ban,” February, 1999). On December 2, 1998, two days after the official ban date, Miller Composting Corporation held a grand opening of its $8 million Halifax facility. Another facility owned by New Era Farms Ltd. began operating at the same time.

While opened on schedule, it was still a couple of months before both facilities had completed full-scale testing and were able to process all compostable material. Each facility is permitted to accept up to 27,500 tons/year of feedstock. They both came into existence after Halifax completed a design/build/own/operate proposal process. Both have a contract with the municipality to accept source separated residential organics and are guaranteed a minimum amount of material. The facilities also contract with the ICI sector for additional feedstock. A minimum price, however, is regulated by the municipality.

Good Earth Organic Resources Group Ltd. started a private facility in 1997 to cater largely to the ICI sector. Permitted to accept up to 6,600 tons/year, it also has two contracts with smaller municipalities nearby, including East Hants County.

All three facilities are operating at or relatively near capacity. Region #5 had sought a contractor to build, own and operate a composting facility in the region, but New Era Farms convinced it to send its source-separated organic material to the Halifax facility. It also secured organics from another region. This opportunity arose because Region #5 had only one landfill, which was scheduled to close in June, 1999. After a couple of failures at siting a landfill, Region #5 negotiated with the Queens County landfill in Region #6 to accept all of its waste. Because there would be empty trucks returning to Region #5, New Era negotiated to take Queens County’s source separated residential organics. The material is added to Region #5 organic feedstock and taken to New Era for composting. This arrangement catapulted the facility into near-capacity mode , particularly during the fall, when leaves are in abundance.


Known for its fruit and vegetable farms, the Annapolis Valley is home to some of the most fertile soil in Eastern Canada. The region is comprised of Annapolis (23,000) and Kings (pop 61,000) Counties. As stated above, all source separated residential organics are sent to New Era Farms in Halifax.

A number of farms in the valley have been involved in composting of their own organic materials for years. Five composting operations have capacities between 1,100 and 10,000 tons/year. Their feedstock is a mix of manure and ICI source separated organics.


Region #6 spans four county areas, including West Hants, Lunenburg, and Queens Counties, and part of Shelburne County. Lunenburg opened a centralized composting facility in 1994 with capacity of 11,000 tons/year, the first of its kind in North America, using the Miller Composting Ebara technology. Since its opening, the District of Chester also has begun sending its source separated organic material to the facility. Another municipality, the town of Windsor in West Hants, sends its organic material to Good Earth.
 As stated earlier, Queens County sends its organics to New Era Farms. Lockeport, a small town on the coast of Shelburne County, has taken a different approach, supplying every residence with a Green Cone anaerobic decomposition unit to process organic material. Results in some parts of town have been promising.


Located on the southern and western shores of Nova Scotia, the Western Region (pop 57,000), is comprised of Yarmouth County and the Municipality of Barrington (combined pop. 36,000), and Digby County (pop. 21,000). A new in-vessel composting facility under construction in Yarmouth includes part ownership by the group that developed the Good Earth Organic Resources Group facility (see sidebar).


Despite the many successes in development of the composting infrastructure in Nova Scotia, the following issues have presented challenges:

Acceptance of Composting Carts

Almost all municipalities in Nova Scotia that have implemented centralized composting opted to use composting carts. Many tested various systems and chose this one for its ergonomic design, ease of use, and potential cost savings through replacement of disposable garbage bags. However, there is always a small component of the public resistant to change regardless of the facts placed before them.

For the composting carts, the process has begun in municipal council chambers with arguments over who will pay, how it will be paid, and over what length of time. Arrangements in Nova Scotia have included a one-time charge to residents’ tax bills, payment through the general tax rate, and the cart supplier offering a lease arrangement to the municipality.

The next challenge has been acceptance of carts by residents. Some flatly refuse to participate. Municipalities have taken many approaches, from hard-line tactics such as stating “you must participate or else,” to more relaxed rules allowing carts to be returned. Halifax opted for the latter, and of 100,000 carts issued, only 700 were returned. Many of these returns were due to the fact that the homes had no side yard or other reasonable storage area. Other municipalities allow cart returns only if residents can prove that they are diverting their organic material through other means, such as a backyard digester. Less urban areas such as Lunenburg and Colchester have few residents not receptive to organics collection.


Most municipalities have opted to use a tagging system to manage contamination. If a hauler notices contamination in a cart, a sticker is placed on it indicating the problem and the cart is not emptied. While this helps keep the organics stream clean, it is not always easy to ensure that the resident participates in the program after the sticker is placed. The consistency with which the hauler places tags on the carts. is important. This is an issue particular to private composting facilities that accept organics from haulers having no direct contractual arrangement with the composting plant.

Facility odors

Odors from facilities have been one of the most contentious composting issues. Over the past year, Halifax has had to deal with odors from the New Era Farms and Good Earth sites. The peak of the odor problems happened in late July and August last year, when Nova Scotia experienced its hottest and most humid months ever recorded. Public criticism of the problems continues.

Odor causes have included start-up problems, installation warranty issues and learning curves. In addition, the feedstock in Halifax is high in carbon due to the fact that boxboard is composted and not recycled. This has lengthened composting time, pushing materials outdoors and creating other odor problems.

There have been relatively few odor problems with other facilities in the province. Most of the centralized facilities are located at landfill sites, far away from businesses or residences.

Fruit flies, maggots and cart odors

In all cases so far, municipalities in Nova Scotia have opted for biweekly pick up of organics carts. While this leads to more efficient collection, it also means more fruit flies, maggots and odors, especially during extremely hot summers. Municipalities have done enough piloting to provide residents with answers to the issues: Empty kitchen organic materials daily; Wrap meat and fish in boxboard or newsprint; Keep the cart away from your house; and Clean the cart after emptying. While the problems can’t be totally eliminated, most Nova Scotians have learned that having some odor and flies around the cart just means that nature is alive and well. While this is little comfort to extremely finicky urbanites, many others have welcomed the opportunity to see nature at work, particularly in the heart of the city, where the only visible plants are growing through cracks in the pavement.

The media

Overall, the media have been relatively fair, particularly in regard to carts. There have been some overblown issues, such as the black bear that “attacked” a compost cart one day last summer. The front page picture showed the local Baptist minister standing behind his “mauled” container with a high powered rifle. Although Nova Scotia averages about 20 bear attacks on garbage bags every year, only the bear attacking a cart made front page news.

There has been extensive media coverage of the fruit flies, maggots and odor issues with carts. Fortunately, these have turned into free education pieces for the public. Odor problems at the composting facilities, however, have been far more difficult to manage. Success here has only been found with openness and honesty, and by following through on promises made. As long as odors persist, however, the media will continue to follow this issue and create pressures on regulators and operators.

Delinquent municipalities

Centralized composting systems now cover 70 percent of the population in Nova Scotia. The original vision of the Solid Waste-Resource Management Strategy was that every person would have access to curbside collection of organic material. However, Nova Scotia is very rural in many areas. As a result, the Department of the Environment accepted early on that for certain jurisdictions, curbside collection was not necessary, provided that the municipality: Has an extensive backyard composting program for all residents; Monitors progress of backyard composting; Provides for leaf and yard trimmings composting; and Enforces full source separation of all organic material for the ICI sector. There are still a few other rural municipalities that have not yet met these requirements, as well as larger ones not providing full programs for their residents. While the Department of the Environment is working with those municipalities to develop programs, those that continue to contravene the regulations run the risk of being charged under the Nova Scotia Environment Act.

The past year has seen Nova Scotia make incredible progress through the development of composting programs. Intense local and province-wide education and awareness programs have brought acceptance. The Resource Recovery Fund Board, for instance, spent $1.1 million/year ($1.15/person/year) Canadian on education and awareness programs over the past couple years. Municipalities more than doubled this expenditure with local programs. Nova Scotia has turned the tide on the environmental disasters caused by its landfills and open burning dumps, and is poised to begin the new millennium with a new resource, organic residuals, and a new respect for its environment.

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