Nfld. & Labrador

Why can't this massive wood pile in central Newfoundland be recycled?

Central Newfoundland's regional waste authority has begun burying thousands of tonnes of wood products at their dump, after years searching for alternatives.

Central waste board tried for years to divert the wood

Edward Evans, chief administrative officer of Central Newfoundland Waste Management, stands in front of a wood waste pile in a rock quarry at the Norris Arm dump site. Evans says the wood can be safely stored in the quarry, but it is not his first preference. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Central Newfoundland's regional waste authority has begun burying thousands of tonnes of wood products at its dump, after years searching for ways to recycle the material.

Trucks are hauling roughly 20,000 tonnes of wood products to the regional dump site in Norris Arm. It will be buried in a rock quarry, alongside an additional 20,000 tonnes that's already on site. Roughly 4,000 more tonnes will be added to the pile each year.

While that wood pile looks massive, there's a problem: The waste management group says there's not enough good product inside it to find another use.

Edward Evans, head administrator at Central Newfoundland Waste Management, said the last thing they want to do with wood is bury it.

"Unfortunately, the material has been stockpiled for in excess of 12 years now and a lot of material has gone to a sawdust or rotting down, broken down."

The authority's board of directors authorized dumping last year, after spending years searching for an alternative that would have had the wood recycled or reused. Board minutes show directors were looking for information on shredders since at least 2013.

Discarded wood products lines the side of rock quarry at the CNWM dump site in Norris Arm. The wood will be dumped and then covered with construction aggregate. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Evans said his group brought in contractors from across Atlantic Canada to tour the site and has appealed to the provincial government for help but can't find a reasonable and affordable alternative.

A very costly venture for very little volume.- Edward Evans

A shredding contract was signed in the summer of 2017 with Ryan Construction, but it fell apart less than a year later after the contractor had issues with metals, steel and rocks in the wood pile. 

Todd Manuel, who operates Ryan Construction in Lewisporte, says his company can get the necessary equipment to remove the junk and process the wood, but can't come to an agreement with the waste management authority and the provincial government on the bid bond — a type of financial guarantee typically offered by the contractor in a construction project.

Other contractors have put together bid packages too, but Evans says they were asking for more money then the waste management board could afford. Buying the necessary equipment themselves would cost $2 million in upfront costs.

"The investment of that, plus the employment opportunities and maintenance, repairs and upkeep is a very costly venture for very little volume," Evans said.

"There might be a small case where somebody might do something part time to get into processing … and there may be other opportunities in the province to use that equipment for. But this really should be led by industry and not by regional service boards or waste management authorities."

If the site is left untouched, Evans says, it will eventually become a brownfield site where grass and trees could grow. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Other jurisdictions have had more success with diverting wood waste: Nova Scotia's approach, which includes funding support for businesses and stricter controls and recycling targets, was praised in a document prepared by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment in 2019.

Evans says Nova Scotia benefits from an economy of scale, and central Newfoundland does not.

"Basically, it's because of the small population that we have, that we serve here, especially in central Newfoundland," he said. "We have about 32,000 households that we service, about 72,000 people. And we just don't have enough volume."

Although the pile is big, a lot of the wood product inside of it is old and rotting, according to Evans. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Evans said the entire island of Newfoundland could probably produce 12,000 tonnes a year, which might be enough to be lucrative.

All that wood waste is spread across different jurisdictions and different dumps. A spokesperson for the City of St. John's wrote in a statement that wood waste is primarily dumped at the Robin Hood Bay site, and although some diversion of natural wood happens, the city isn't required to keep statistics on the diversion rate.

Fire risk forces move

The wood piles in central Newfoundland had been growing for years at CNWM's smaller transfer sites.

Evans said the waste management board began to stockpile the wood with the hope it could eventually be used as an carbon additive in composting. But years after stockpiling began, no mass composting program has started, and the piles have grown larger and larger.

"It became a safety issue.… Some are located in the wilderness and some are located pretty close to communities and cabins," Evans said. "There was a request to get this material moved away from the transfer station and take better control of it."

A dump truck driver adds some more wood waste to the growing pile at the Norris Arm dump site. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The size of the wood piles drew complaints from the Town of Fogo Island and the town's fire chief last year. Those concerns pushed the waste management board to centralize the wood waste at its dump in Norris Arm.

Though the wood is being covered with about three feet of fill, Evans said it will still be accessible if market forces change or if someone shows an interest in processing some of the fibre.

"It has good use for composting, has a good use as a hog fuel. It could be a high-value product," he said.

Manuel says he has interest — and he has one of the necessary machines, a grinder, sitting next to his house in Lewisporte. He calls the decision to bury the wood "totally wrong."

"I went up many times for meetings, and said 'We can work together, we can do this'," he said. "We were moving it."

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