Push to allow some coffee pods in green bins reveals unresolved issues in Ontario's compost system

Ontario’s recent suggestion that municipalities allow compostable coffee pods into green bins is shining a light on problems in the province's waste system, experts say.

Vast majority of pods will still end up in landfills, waste industry group says

Certified compostable coffee pods could soon be allowed in your green bin. But does that mean they'll actually be composted? (University of Guelph)

The Ontario government's recent suggestion that municipalities allow compostable coffee pods into their green bin programs is leading to objections from environmental and industry groups — and shining a light on unresolved issues in the province's waste system. 

Last week, the Ontario environment ministry laid out plans to amend its food and organic waste policy statement, explaining that the goal is to "clarify and expand" the items that municipalities should accept in their green bins.

The province gave just one specific example of a new item in its release: coffee pods that are "certified compostable," meaning they have been lab tested and proven to break down within three months. 

That caught the attention of the Ontario Waste Management Association, whose members handle 85 per cent of the province's garbage, recycling and compost. 

The issue, according to association CEO Mike Chopowick, is that the overwhelming majority of municipal compost facilities simply aren't able to process the pods at present — meaning that even if they go into green bins, they'll have to be screened out and will wind up in landfills eventually.   

"We have very practical concerns," said Chopowick in an interview with CBC Toronto. 

"This will result in, quite frankly, more expensive garbage," he said. "It does increase the cost of the processing system." 

Municipal facilities vs. 'compostable' plastics 

Meaford, Ont. current accepts certified compostable coffee pods and cutlery. But beyond that, neither the province or Chopowick could name any other municipal green bin program that does. 

So why can't most municipal facilities break down products like certified compostable coffee pods?

Chopowick says it comes down to time. 

Ontario's municipal facilities, he says, are designed to break down organic materials quickly to deal with the "heavy volume of incoming waste" from the province's cities and towns. 

Cups, cutlery, bags and coffee pods that are branded as compostable or biodegradable simply don't break down fast enough, "even though they may be compostable in the long run," he said, adding that some compostable-branded products can take as long as two years.

"The proper operation of these facilities depends on that fast turnaround time," he explained. 

Green bins are already filled with contaminants, says Chopowick, including plastic wrap, milk bags and Q-tips. He's concerned that allowing certified compostable coffee pods will mean more sorting and more consumer confusion. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Producer responsibility model 

Environmental Defence, an organization that describes itself as a "group of innovative, passionate and determined problem-solvers ... working hard to protect Canada's environment and human health," is also raising concerns about the province's directive on coffee pods. 

"They end up gumming up the machinery, and being perceived by the machinery like plastic," said executive director Tim Gray. 

"That ends up causing all of that organic waste that is contaminated by these things to be rejected and go to landfill." 

Both Gray and Chopowick say a better approach would be to adopt a model of producer responsibility — similar to what's being worked on for recycling in Ontario — to force people who make coffee pods to deal with them themselves. 

"Why wouldn't they just mandate the producers of these materials to collect them themselves and compost them, if they're so convinced that they're really easy and cheap to compost?" asked Gray. 

Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray says: 'A coffee pod is probably the most wasteful way you can produce your own coffee.' (CBC)

Consumer confusion

CBC News has identified another site in Ontario that breaks down certified compostable products like cups and cutlery, located in Kingson, Ont. 

In fact, the facility, called Tomlinson Organics, was cited by the province to CBC Toronto as a compost innovator whose example could be followed by others. 

There are issues, though — including that Tomlinson Organics currently only takes in compostable plastic items from commercial sources. 

The facility's manager also told CBC journalists in an interview in March that the "jury's still out" on whether compostable plastics will ever be viable in a municipal system, given the sheer number of products that claim to be compostable and the ensuing confusion for the public around which ones are legitimate. 

It's a worry shared by Chopowick, who says adding to the list of what's allowed in green bins will be "very confusing" for people. 

"One scenario that we can anticipate is that more residents will put more of these items into their green bins that don't belong," he said. 

Pods can break down in 5 weeks, Club Coffee says

Club Coffee, a company that produces certified compostable coffee pods in Ontario, said in a statement it too believes that consumer confusion is the real issue preventing municipalities from accepting their product. 

"We have run successful tests with many municipal and private sector composting... [showing] clearly that the pods can break down in as little as five weeks, faster than many forms of food waste," said a company spokesperson. 

"Many municipal waste officials in Ontario have told us privately that their reservations about formally accepting the pods centre largely on ensuring consumer education. They don't want people to put non-compostable pods into green bins."

Province encourages move toward compostable plastics 

While the province couldn't name a municipal composting program that currently accepts the certified coffee pods, it did say that "most facilities" allow compostable plastic bags. 

There's a caveat to that too, said Chopowick, who notes that while places like Ottawa have sprung for a special bag shredder to be able process compostable plastic bags, the price is significant, with that city paying $8.5 million for its equipment.

In a statement from the environment ministry, a spokesperson said that the changes to the waste policy represent the province's interest in "working with municipalities and industry" to "better understand the path to incorporating innovations in compostable packaging."

The spokesperson also described a pilot project undertaken with the federal government to put more compostable packaging like coffee pods through Ontario's facilities, and a commitment to investing in research to figure out ways to "effectively manage compostables." 

'Compostable,' 'certified compostable' and 'biodegradable' all mean different things, and none of them are necessarily compostable at any given compost facility. (CBC)

For Chopowick, the proposed changes to the waste policy are simply "moving just a little bit too fast."

Compostable plastics "just aren't there" yet, he said, explaining that if they're able to break down faster they may one day be compatible in municipal facilities — but that for now, they belong in the trash. 

"We also think both producers and the government should be a little bit more transparent with consumers about that," he said. 

Gray puts it more bluntly. 

"I think this is purely catering to private industry lobbying," he told CBC Toronto. 

"This has got nothing to do with improving the waste management system. The environment has to pay, and in this case taxpayers are going to pay as well." 


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