Most of Ottawa's Compost goes right into the Landfill, here's why

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Lauren McCoy

As the largest city in Eastern Ontario and the 6th most populated metropolitan in Canada, Ottawa produces huge volumes of waste each year. In 2019 alone, Ottawa’s 1 million residents threw out almost 340,000 tonnes of waste, and this figure continues to rise each year (1). For this reason, waste management policies are critically important in maintaining the health of our city and environment (2). Despite the importance of Ottawa’s waste management system in collecting, transporting, processing, and disposing residential waste, many of us remain unaware or uninterested of where our trash goes once it has been collected from the curb (3). As it stands currently, there are serious shortcoming in Ottawa’s waste management system, especially concerning efforts to divert waste away from the Trail Road landfill.

According to a report published by the City of Ottawa in early 2020, over half of the total waste produced by Ottawa residents ends up in landfills. Ottawa currently has a diversion rate of about 42%, with only 18% of our waste being diverted to recycling services and 24% to organic waste programs (4). In comparison, leading Canadian municipalities divert upwards of 60% of their total waste to alternative programs besides landfills (5). Although recycling services could be improved, the true concern lies with Ottawa’s organic waste. While nearly 85% of citizens participate in Ottawa’s recycling programs, only about 50% of residents use their green bin (6). This lack of participation in the green bin program is reflected in the waste that builds up in landfills. In total, less than half of what is thrown in the trash in Ottawa is considered “actual garbage.” It is estimated that nearly 58% of landfill waste could have been diverted, of which organic materials make up almost 80% of that waste. Although this organic waste could have easily been diverted through the green bin program, it instead continues to accumulate in landfills with heavy consequences (7).

The over-representation of organic waste in landfills is problematic for several reasons. Food waste decomposing in landfills produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas roughly 25 times as potent as CO₂ (8). Releasing methane gas prior to being burned allows it to absorb the sun’s heat, making it a huge contributor to climate change. Although methane gas does not have as long a lifespan as CO₂, its increased effectiveness in absorbing heat has devastating consequences while it lingers in the atmosphere (9). Addressing the growing pile of organic waste in landfills will help minimize Canada’s emissions and slow the rate of climate change.

The mounting pile of organic waste in Ottawa’s landfill is also worsening other waste management issues. As a developed nation, Canada is included among the top global producers of waste per capita. It should come to no surprise that much of this waste predominantly winds up in landfills, (10) with huge environmental and health consequences (11). Such volume of waste has created a landfill crisis across Canada, as there is simply too much waste for municipalities to manage. With Ottawa’s Trail Roads landfill’s disposal capacity set to be reached in 2041, it’s clear that the growing quantity of waste produced by Ottawans must be addressed (12). A new landfill site would take a decade to complete and is estimated at $300 million in addition to environmental degradation costs (13). The best path forward is to drastically change how Ottawans manage their waste.

Duncan Bury is a long time expert in the field of waste management and founder of Waste Watch Ottawa, a local advocacy group promoting better waste diversion and environmental practices for Ottawa’s waste management system. Despite having the necessary organic and recycling programs in place to divert waste from landfills, Bury says Ottawa’s performance is not nearly as effective as it could be. “For the longest time Ottawa council didn’t really pay attention to waste management, recycling, and composting,” explains Bury. Instead “they chased a dream of an incinerator… that was going to burn garbage and magically make it disappear and create energy. (14)” Although at the time accumulating data proved the technology’s inadequacy, the city continued to maintain those programs without developing alternative waste management initiatives (15).

In fact, it seems that The City of Ottawa was largely unaware of how poorly its waste management system was until recent years. According to Bury, prior to recent initiatives the City of Ottawa rarely reported, published, or communicated the performance of its waste management system to City Council or Ottawa residents. It was only in 2017 after a report published by Waste Watch Ottawa that members of the city council were alerted to how poorly the city’s waste management system was operationalized (16).

In terms of Ottawa’s organic waste dilemma, Bury reports that is not necessarily an issue unique to Ottawa (17). Many large municipalities have historically struggled with diverting organic waste, including Montreal which in 2018 diverted only 20% of residential organic waste (18). When asked why Ottawa has such difficulties concerning organic waste, Bury cites several converging factors. For one, Ottawa currently does not provide green bin services to multi-residential complexes. Although individual buildings may take the initiative to implement their own organic waste program, the lack of green bin services to multi-residential complexes streamlines the organic waste produced by apartments, townhouses, and condominiums straight to the Trail Road landfill (19).

There is also the issue that the city of Ottawa has not historically promoted green bin and services designed to divert waste from landfills (20). According to Waste Watch Ottawa’s 2017 report, Ottawa “spends considerably less per household on promotion and education to encourage higher levels of public participation and better waste diversion performance than all of the other large municipalities in Ontario (21).” As of 2015, Ottawa had never spent more that 0.50 cent per household per year on promoting their waste management programs, while other municipalities were spending in the range of 1.00 to 2.50$ (22). Waste Watch Ottawa cites this as a key reason for Ottawa’s poor diversion rates and urges the city to invest in education for better results (23).

Bury also notes issues in current organic waste disposal programs, namely allowing Ottawa’s citizens to dispose of their organic waste in plastic bags (24). In 2019, Renewi (the company that processes Ottawa's organic waste) underwent a huge $8.5 million upgrade of its facilities to separate plastic from organic waste. Allowing Ottawa residents to dispose of their organic waste in plastic bags aimed to incentivize more households into using the green bin program (25). So far, it is unclear how effective the initiative has been. Although the City has yet to publish any data on this, Bury says that “there’s no evidence…that [plastic bags] really has made a significant influence” to Ottawa’s overall diversion rates (26).

In fact, Bury is adamant that the addition of plastic bags to the organic waste disposal program will only hinder its effectiveness. “Even if we get slightly better levels of participation,” says Bury, “The price we're likely still going to be paying is [for] a poorer quality compost, which can’t be used for agricultural use because its degraded by plastic particles (27).” In shredding plastic bags to later separate the plastic from the actual compost, Renewi creates what is known as non agricultural sourced material (NASM). Although officially Renewi claims to sell their compost to farmers,(28) it is unclear how truthful that statement is. As a private company, once Ottawa’s organic waste is purchased it becomes Renewi’s property to distribute as they choose. Information on where our organic waste ends up is up to Renewi to disclose, and as of yet it is unclear where our organic waste goes (29).

Without official figures to support Renewi’s claim, the prevailing assumption among environmentalists is that Renewi’s lower quality compost has minimal practical applications and is not being used for high-quality agricultural use. Citing previous conversations with agriculturalists, Bury describes the concern among many farmers that the small bits of plastic within NASM will harm their livestock if ingested or lower the quality of their produce. “You never get all the plastic bits out if you add it in,” says Bury, “…and frankly at a time when Canada and the rest of the world is trying to get rid of single-use plastics we're encouraging people in Ottawa to use them, which seems counter-indicative (30)." Instead, Bury emphasizes that plastic bags are not needed to dispose of organic waste, and urges residents to use biodegradable paper bags as an environmentally friendly alternative (31).

With that said, Bury remains hopeful that new Master plan will bring the change desperately needed to improve Ottawa’s Waste Management system (32). In July of 2019, Ottawa’s city council approved the development of a new 30-year Solid Waste Master Plan to update Ottawa’s outdated waste management system (33). After advocating for an updated waste management plan for some time, Waste Watch Ottawa has become directly involved in developing the Solid Waste Master plan, participating in the multi-stakeholder soundboard where they keep in touch directly with city staff and provide their input on the principles and policies that will make up the new plan (34).

Among Waste Watch Ottawa’s suggestions, Bury has been pushing for Ottawa to follow leading municipalities in implementing a user-pay policy. At its core the user-pay model would have Ottawa citizens pay for garbage based on household consumption. By requiring residents to pay for exceeding their limit on waste disposal, the user-pay model creates a financial incentive for residents to use recycling and composting programs more effectively, thereby increasing diversion rates. Although this may seem like a drastic change, the user-pay model has found much success in other major municipalities across Ontario and is expected to increased Ottawa’s diversion rates by 10% (35).

Waste Watch Ottawa has also been advocating for multi-residential buildings to be included in organic waste services and for the city to aspire toward a 70% diversion rate (36). While we wait for the next steps of the Solid Waste Master Plan to begin, let’s continue to support local organization fighting for our health and environment, hold the City of Ottawa accountable, and advocate for an improved waste management system.



  1. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System (Ottawa, ON: Ottawa Public Engagement, March 3, 2020), 1, https://engage.ottawa.ca/solid-waste -master-plan/documents/28222/download.

  2. Duncan Bury and Meg Sears, “Bury and Sears: Ottawa should do much better at waste diversion,” June 24, 2020, https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/bury-and sears#:~:text=What%20happens%20to%20the%20362,out%20340%2C000%20tonnes%20in%202019.

  3. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System, 1.

  4. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System, 3-4.

  5. Bury and Sears, “Bury and Sears: Ottawa should do much better at waste diversion.”

  6. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System, 3-4.

  7. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System, 6.

  8. City of Ottawa, Overview of the City of Ottawa’s Current Waste Management System, 7.

  9. Steve Hamburg, “Methane: The other important greenhouse gas,” Environmental Defense Fund, 2021, https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-other-important - greenhouse-gas#:~:text=If%20methane%20leaks%20into%20the,greenhouse%20gas%2C%20like% 20carbon%20dioxide.

  10. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  11. Acciona, “Landfills: A Serious Problem for the Environment.”

  12. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  13. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  14. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  15. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  16. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  17. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  18. Craig Desson, “Montreal diverting just 20% of its organic household waste, says auditor general,” CBC News, June 21, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-diverting-just-20-of-its-organic-household-waste-says-auditor-general-1.4713925.

  19. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  20. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  21. Waste Watch Ottawa. Improving The City of Ottawa’s Waste Diversion Performance: Recommendation for Action. September 15, 2017. https://wastewatchottawa.ca/2017/09/15/waste-watch-ottawa-analysis-finds-citys-lack-of-planning-and-public-education-is-squandering-landfill - capacity/. 3.

  22. Waste Watch Ottawa, Improving The City of Ottawa’s Waste Diversion Performance: Recommendation for Action, 3.

  23. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  24. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  25. Kate Porter, “Ever wonder where all your green bin slop goes?,” CBC News, October 18, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-green-bin-compost -facility tour-photos-1.5324407.

  26. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  27. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  28. Porter, “Ever wonder where all your green bin slop goes?.”

  29. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  30. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  31. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  32. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  33. City of Ottawa, “Solid Waste Master Plan,” Engage Ottawa, https://engage.ottawa.ca/solid-waste-master-plan?page=1&tool=news_feed.

  34. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  35. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.

  36. Duncan Bury, in discussion with author, January 5, 2021.