Montreal's household compost gets trucked 100 km away. A look at the city's delayed and pricey program

Delays have dragged on at two new centres in the city that would process food waste. But the city says the wait will be worth it.

Delays drag on at 2 centres to process food waste, but city says it's worth the wait

Two brown bins on a sidewalk
Montreal was supposed to have two new sites within city limits to process the food waste picked up in brown bins but construction has been delayed by a labour dispute. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Once a week, hundreds of thousands of Montrealers dutifully set aside their food scraps for compost collection. 

But what they may not know is that the trucks that pick up the brown bins often travel to processing centres more than 100 kilometres from the city, spewing out greenhouse gases in the process.

Montreal was supposed to have two new sites within city limits by now — in Saint-Laurent and Montréal-Est — but construction has been delayed since July by a labour dispute.

Workers with EBC, a Montreal-based construction firm, walked off the two job sites this summer after a disagreement with Veolia, the company overseeing the project. 

Neither company returned a request for comment. In total, the municipal contracts are worth $340 million.

As the dispute drags on, critics say the delays are costly for taxpayers — and the environment.

Alan DeSousa, a member of the opposition Ensemble Montreal and borough mayor of Saint-Laurent, said he doubts the plant in his borough will be ready early in 2023. 

DeSousa hasn't even been able to tour the construction site, despite it being located in his borough. 

He's afraid the cost overruns are sucking money away from other projects, leaving him with a "with a very sinking feeling because these extra costs have to be borne by the taxpayers."

Composting building and sign
The composting centre in Saint-Laurent is 90 per cent complete, authorities say. But it's still not clear when it will be operational and there was no sign of construction work during a recent visit to the site. (Florence Pluhar/CBC)

Is city's 2025 goal attainable? 

Marie-Andrée Mauger, the borough mayor of Verdun and the city's executive committee member responsible for the environment, said she's confident the city can still reach its 2025 target — and that the Saint-Laurent plant will be ready early in the new year.

"We don't want the population and the city of Montreal to be held hostage because of this commercial dispute," she said.

Overall, 635,000 households have access to organic waste collection in Montreal — roughly 70 per cent of the city's total.

Most people living in apartment buildings with nine or more units still don't. 

Montreal has set the goal of making composting of food waste available to all residents by 2025. 

As it stands, about half of what goes into landfills from the city of Montreal is organic material that could be sent elsewhere. 

If it's left to decompose in a landfill, that material releases methane — a potent greenhouse gas that experts say is responsible for about a third of observed global warming.

Plans for an improved system to handle the city's food waste have been in place for more than a decade. 

Costs of the project have skyrocketed over the years, while the proposal itself has been scaled back — a 2013 plan budgeted $237 million for five separate centres across the city. 

Mauger standing in front of Montreal's city hall
Marie-Andrée Mauger, the borough mayor of Verdun and the city's executive committee member responsible for the environment, said the centre in Saint-Laurent will ready early in 2023. (Benoît Chapdelaine/Radio-Canada)

Mauger said the composting centre in Saint-Laurent is more than 90 per cent complete and that work is proceeding — slowly. On a recent weekday, there was no sign of workers at the site.

The other centre, a biomethanization facility in Montréal-Est, is roughly 50 per cent complete, according to a presentation at city council earlier this month.

The Saint-Laurent facility is designed to produce high quality soil that can be used in gardens and farms, while the one in Montréal-Est will produce natural gas that can be used as an energy source.

Graphic showing the process for Montreal's two organic waste centres.

With those centres still not complete, food waste is sent to several off-island locations, a city spokesperson said, including Moose Creek, Ont., roughly 145 kilometres west of Montreal.

Mauger acknowledged the current situation isn't ideal. Ultimately, the idea is to process food waste on the island, she said, "so we will reduce trucks in our streets all over Quebec."

"We will make something with it that we are proud of … instead of putting it in the landfill and creating methane gas that is very bad for the environment," Mauger said.

'In a broader sense, it's a benefit to society'

Dr. Grant Clark, an expert in composting and an associate professor in the department of bioresource engineering at McGill University, said there is a debate about whether the chosen centres are optimal.

High cost and controversy aside, he said, the new centres will bring benefits.

"Almost invariably, the municipality is going to give away free compost to its citizens, so if you're a gardener, that's an advantage," he said.

"But in a broader sense, it's a benefit to society. So it's a way you can contribute to the fight against climate change by reducing our emissions. And this is done because we're diverting that material away from landfill and reducing methane emissions."

He said other cities, such as Edmonton and Calgary, are further along in terms of their composting programs.

"There's still be a lot more work to do," Clark said. "But this is the direction that municipalities are headed generally because of the interest of governments in the circular economy and in recycling those nutrients and organic waste back to a useful useful place again in the economy."


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.