Dumpster Diving

The ins and outs of waste disposal at McGill
By: Emma Gillies, Science & Technology Editor

Canada produced 25 million tonnes of waste in 2016, ranking as one of the highest per-capita waste generators in the world. The non-residential sector, which includes industry and institutions such as universities, produces the majority of this waste. In the past year alone, McGill’s downtown campus has generated 1,454 tonnes of landfill waste and recycling, roughly 10 times the weight of a blue whale. Industry professionals are working to reduce these numbers, and achieving sustainability requires addressing this issue head-on. Since the City of Montreal does not offer waste and recycling services to institutions like McGill, the university forms its own contracts with the companies that haul garbage, recycling, and compost to nearby facilities.

In the past year alone, McGill’s downtown campus has generated 1,454 tonnes of landfill waste and recycling, roughly 10 times the weight of a blue whale
Kendra Pomerantz, sustainability, contracts, and special projects supervisor in McGill’s Department of Buildings and Grounds, receives an invoice from these companies for every piece of trash and recycling that McGill produces.

“I can track the supply chain to a certain extent,” Pomerantz said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “I know that [the waste] is ending up at the right place, […] and, on the other hand, I can track the amounts of waste and recycling that we’re producing as a university.”

Since McGill only started receiving third party–certified data in 2018, Pomerantz cannot yet see if the amount of waste that McGill produces is decreasing. Still, she hopes to improve waste management on campus by enhancing waste signage and increasing educational outreach.

“One of the challenges for creating educational material was the fact that […] waste signage had never been centralized and standardized,” Pomerantz said.

McGill’s Buildings and Grounds department, a unit within Facility Management and Ancillary Services, oversees waste and recycling for academic buildings on the downtown campus. This past summer, the department placed new signage stickers in all 36 academic buildings at the downtown campus. Buildings and Grounds plans on implementing new waste sorting stations with the same signage across 31 academic buildings next semester, a project that will cost close to $2 million.

Signage is not the only solution, however. Both Buildings and Grounds and Food and Dining Services, for example, employ teams of waste educators to teach proper waste sorting techniques.

“The cafeterias are dealing with first-year students, which is a really important population, because if we can get them to understand waste sorting when they arrive at McGill, then that can translate throughout their whole career here,” Pomerantz said.

Yu-Shing Ni, U3 Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is a Food and Dining Services waste educator. Ni acknowledged that knowing what to throw in the trash, recycling, or compost can be confusing.

“[It] all boils down to being educated on what’s recyclable and what’s not, because there are certain plastics that are not recyclable, and that actually ends up contaminating the entire recycling pile,” Ni said.

McGill’s community hails from many places around the world with diverse waste practices, making waste education more challenging. Pomerantz believes that the varying level of familiarity with Canadian waste disposal norms among McGill’s student population could contribute to these mix-ups.

“People have come from all over the place, […which means] that there is a lot of confusion because, unfortunately, from one city to another, from one country to another, you can see really big differences in how the waste and recycling system works,” Pomerantz said.

Most plastic, for example, cannot be recycled repeatedly, because many applications—such as food wrapping—can only use plastic that has never been recycled before, termed ‘virgin plastic.’ This creates high demand for virgin uses and less desire for plastics in their second or third lives. Virgin plastic’s cheap price tag also reduces the financial incentive that market buyers need to invest in recycled plastics.

“[It] all boils down to being educated on what’s recyclable and what’s not, because there are certain plastics that are not recyclable, and that actually ends up contaminating the entire recycling pile”
It can also be difficult to provide manufacturers with a clean plastic stream, as bins are frequently subjected to contamination. In Montreal, the industry rule-of-thumb for both recycling and compost is 15 per cent contamination, after which the whole bag will be rejected and put in the trash. McGill limits contamination by separating recycling into two streams: Paper and mixed (plastic, metal, and glass).

“By separating the paper from plastic, metal, glass, which are typically food containers, we make sure that the little bit of Coke at the bottom of the can is not going to spill onto the paper, because that can render it unrecyclable,” Pomerantz said.

However, mistakes commonly occur. While coffee cups are often thought to be paper recyclables, most are, in fact, not recyclable due to their interior wax coating. Coffee spills frequently contaminate the paper pile; unless it’s a compostable Roddick Roast cup, coffee cups should go in the trash.

Despite confusion over which materials are recyclable and which are not, McGill students are relatively happy with access to recycling on campus. In a Tribune survey, 81 of 98 total respondents described access to recycling at McGill as good or average; this number was slightly lower when describing access to recycling in Montreal as a whole.

Where materials go after they enter the waste stream is an entirely new ball game, and one that heavily depends on the economic market.

In Jan. 2018, China transformed the recycling world after it closed its borders to recycling imports. The announcement, which pulled the curtain back on how materials are actually recycled, could lead to more standardization, better practices, and cleaner recycling streams in Canada. According to Jason Laframboise, a planning advisor in the City of Montreal’s environmental service, Montreal recycling is currently sent to local facilities on the Island and in Laval.

As the recycling industry evolves, the philosophy behind it evolves, too. Grant Clark, a professor in the Department of Bioresource Engineering at McGill, says that recycling is an energetically expensive process. Consequently, the original ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ hierarchy is starting to be complemented by ideas like refusing to buy unethical products and reclaiming materials, whereby once deemed ‘useless’ waste is considered useful. Urban landfills, for example, can sometimes be mined for their minerals.

“A reclamation company may refine and extract the materials, and in fact, there are higher concentrations of many rare earth materials […] than there are in the original ores that they mined out of the ground,” Clark said.

McGill’s downtown and Macdonald campuses send their landfill waste to Dépôt Rive-Nord on the North Shore of Montreal. These facilities have impermeable layers of clay to exclude oxygen and prevent waste from contaminating groundwater, although leaks do happen.

Landfills like Dépôt Rive-Nord also use carbon-capturing technologies to limit their immense carbon footprint.

“Like any other modern landfill in North America, they have a gas recovery system,” Clark said. “They have wells that are drilled down through the landfill, […] and the gas is recovered, and because oxygen is excluded, the bacteria in the landfill metabolize the organics, and one of the end products is methane.”

Methane is eventually upgraded and sold to pipelines as clean, sustainable natural gas, which, unlike natural gas that comes from the ground, has been actively cycling through the biosphere.

Dépôt Rive-Nord also has a composting facility for food waste. Like in a landfill, an impermeable pad of clay surrounds the compost pile so that polluted water does not reach the groundwater. Unlike landfills, however, compost piles are aerated to promote soil formation.

“The compost is formed into windrows, [which are long rows of organic matter], maybe mixed with a bulking agent like wood chips so that there’s lots of porosity and airflow so it remains aerobic, and then they turn it,” Clark said.

Last year, a McGill waste audit found that nearly half of the material in the trash was compostable.
The compost produced at many facilities is used to cover the landfill itself. After covering 40 metres of compacted garbage with clay, the facility places composted topsoil on the top and revegetates it. At McGill,
Compost Montréal transports food waste to a composting facility in southwest Montreal, where the finished product is used in the municipality’s landscaping. In other municipal facilities, compost is sold or given away to citizens, or placed back on agricultural land.

Composting at McGill is only offered in cafeterias, McConnell Engineering, and certain places at the Macdonald campus. 82.5 per cent of survey respondents reported that access to compost bins at McGill was either bad or very bad. Pomerantz hopes that the McConnell proof-of-concept project will lead to more compost stations on campus in the coming years.

“It’s a very, very large operational system to roll out,” Pomerantz said. “So, due to popular demand, we put compost bins in McConnell Engineering, and for us, that was a good way to test […] how much we [are] collecting, what type of material it is, and so on.”

Last year, a McGill waste audit found that nearly half of the material in the trash was compostable. Once in the landfill, organic matter does not cycle nutrients back into the environment: Archaeologists have found perfectly preserved 40-year-old hot dogs, for example, beneath thick layers of garbage. Trapped food waste also heavily contributes to climate change, since food waste in a sealed, anaerobic environment breaks down and releases methane, a gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Access to compost bins is not just a McGill problem: 92.7 per cent of survey respondents described access to compost as bad or very bad around the city of Montreal, and 29.9 per cent reported that they do not compost at home. Laframboise admitted that organic waste pick-up in Montreal remains an issue.

“There are many bins outside homes […] for recyclable materials [in Montreal],” Laframboise wrote in an email to the Tribune.* “With respect to organic matter, [there are] very, very few.”

Several survey respondents also indicated that they did not compost at home as a result of not having a brown bin.

“All buildings of eight apartments or less in the City have a brown box (and up to ten per cent of doors in buildings of nine apartments or more),” Laframboise wrote.* “The implementation in buildings of nine apartments or more and industries, businesses, and institutions […] is expected in the years to come.”

Proper waste disposal at McGill and in Montreal is a small but necessary step in transitioning to a more sustainable society from a consumeristic, linear economy model. The linear economy is based on extracting natural resources and converting them into usable products, after which they are simply thrown away.

“The problem [is that] if we’re using finite, nonrenewable resources like minerals, […] those eventually are going to get more and more difficult to extract, because you use the easy stuff first,” Clark said.

As the extraction of resources becomes more difficult and more expensive—whether it is coal we use for energy, oil for plastics, or phosphorus for fertilizer—the cost of living increases. In addition, the extraction process and disposal of such materials results in severe environmental degradation.

On the other hand, a circular economy reuses resources and embodies biological and technological processes like composting and recycling. The model can be applied to all sorts of materials—even human excrement (termed “biosolids”) that is sent to wastewater treatment facilities.

Pomerantz is optimistic that student engagement on campus will soon lead to significant improvements to McGill’s waste and recycling systems.
Canada generates more than 660,000 tonnes of biosolids every year. While about half of that goes to agricultural production, the rest is either incinerated or landfilled. Clark would like to see more of it go back to agriculture to circularize the process. Clark sees technological and behavioural change as crucial to accomplishing the ideal circular economy.
“For a lot of people, throwing something away is […] almost like an unconscious action: You don’t think about it, it’s just part of your daily routine, but it’s one of those examples of this tiny little action that adds up to make such a giant […] problem and footprint,” Pomerantz said. “And I think it’s a really tangible way that every single one of us at McGill engages in sustainability every day.”

Pomerantz is optimistic that student engagement on campus will soon lead to significant improvements to McGill’s waste and recycling systems.

In addition to dining hall waste educators, McGill has a host of other waste reduction plans. The Office of Sustainability offers sustainability certification for events and offices, as well as funding for projects through the Sustainability Projects Fund. Student clubs and initiatives like Buy Your Own Bulk, Plate Club, Trash2Treasure, and the Recycling Pioneers aim to manage waste disposal better on campus. Yet, as Clark pointed out, students are limited in the impact that they can make.
“The problem with student clubs is that there’s no continuity,” Clark said. “When one cohort of students graduates, if there’s nobody to pick up the reins, that sort of dissipates [.…] If you want something at a university to persist, it really has to be institutionalized.”

Pomerantz and her colleagues in the Buildings and Grounds department have taken on the challenge of trying to improve this.

“While McGill is very bureaucratic, and while there’s more red tape here than you would find in other places, there really is the departmental will to work on this, and we’re the people that ultimately have to make the change, because we’re the ones that run the system,” Pomerantz said.

*The original quote was translated from French by the author.