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A great deal of history to digest

Regional councillors and staff made a visit to Europe in July 2016 to view anaerobis digesters.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Over the past few years, the Ontario government has been making some big changes when it comes to recycling and waste.

Only a few months ago, the Ford government announced it would be shifting the financial responsibility of the province’s Blue Box program to companies that produce packaging.

This change is set to take place in 2021.

Beginning in 2016, the former Liberal government began focusing on reducing the amount of organic materials, such as food waste, soiled paper, leaves and other yard waste, that go to landfills.

According to the Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario: Building a Circular Economy, which was released in February 2017, 32 per cent of all of Ontario’s waste is organic materials.

About 60 per cent of this waste ends up in landfills, resulting in about 3.7 million tonnes per year.

The study also identified that about $31 billion in food is wasted per year in Canada, equating to $868 per person.

Consumers are responsible for the largest share of food waste, at approximately 47 per cent.

At the same time, the winds started circulating about a possible ban of organic materials in Ontario’s landfills.

In response to this potential ban, which will have a considerable financial cost, several regional councillors embarked on a trip to Europe to learn more about anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion (AD) has been described in regional reports as “a robust system which will be able to sort and process cross-contaminated materials from the single and multi-family residence waste streams.”

The AD process would produce biogas, with the potential uses of biogas ranging from power and heat recovery to being cleaned and upgraded to renewable natural gas.

Ontario is no stranger to anaerobic digesters, with numerous farms throughout the province using them as a means to create power using the plentiful animal manure available on site. The largest anaerobic digester in Canada is in Lethbridge, Alberta, and runs on manure and commercial organic waste from across southern Alberta.

The aforementioned trip to Europe was criticized by some members of regional council for being too much.

“When I read this, I have heard from taxpayers on this that aren’t too happy with taxpayers’ money being spent on a trip for councillors to Europe,” Clarington Councillor Joe Neal said, referring to a story published in The Oshawa Express. “I suppose you could say it’s a drop in the bucket, but you could get just as good information, I’m sure if you visited the two plants in Ontario or the one in Colorado, which is a large plant. I don’t see why it’s necessary for councillors to eyeball it and put their hands on it.”

Looking back, it is interesting to note the region’s 2016 capital budget included $30 million to build an anaerobic digester the next year.

A group of eight – made up of Roger Anderson, Durham’s regional chair; Councillors Nester Pidwerbecki, Colleen Jordan and Jack Ballinger; Cliff Curtis, the commissioner of works; Garry Cubitt, the chief administrative officer for the region; Mirka Januszkiewicz, director of waste management; Craig Bartlett, manager of waste operations; and Peter Veiga, waste services supervisor – flew to Paris on June 30, 2016, with most returning July 9.

Documents later obtained by The Oshawa Express showed the total cost for airfare and land costs, including hotels and transportation, were just more than $90,000.

In January 2017, the capital budget for that year estimated the costs of an anaerobic digester, along with a presort facility for organizing waste, would come to $72 million.

Those cost estimates continued to balloon throughout the year, as in July 2017, now retired commissioner of finance Jim Clapp said, depending on how the region addressed its organics management, the capital costs could run from $170 million to $210 million.

Before the region had even decided to move forward with a digester, as there were other options to consider, companies were banging on the door.

This image shows an anaerobic digester as conceptualized by Veridian and Enbridge, during a joint presentation made to regional council in May 2017.

In May 2017, Enbridge and Veridian made a joint pitch to partner with the region on an anaerobic digester.

However, documents obtained by The Express through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, showed regional staff had told both companies they weren’t actively seeking partners yet.

Around the same time, it was noted the digester was “at least two years” away from being built.

Before this could happen, a full business case needed to be presented to regional council.

However, almost a year had passed, and into the summer of 2018, it was clear some councillors were losing patience.

Neal claimed the region was continually “treading water” on the issue.

“We are not really moving forward towards a decision,” Neal commented in July 2018. “Is it not time to get more specific about what it would look like?”

“We keep coming back with the same reports saying we’re going to get more information. This is the third time we’ve authorized an RFI, let’s get on with it.”

Then-Ajax Councillor and now Mayor Shaun Collier voiced his disappointment with the lack of complete financial figures.

“This to me is not a business plan, and we’ve been waiting on a business plan the whole way through,” Collier said. “I don’t think we’ve been given enough answers.”

Commissioner of works Susan Siopis told The Express the decision on an anaerobic digester in Durham would rest in the hands of the 2018-2022 regional council.

Later in the summer, regional staff officially endorsed anaerobic digestion as the preferred option for dealing with the region’s organic waste.

The wait for council continued into 2019, as an update was provided in July.

Gio Anello, the region’s manager of waste planning and technical services, says staff hope an anaerobic digester can be built within the next three years.

Gio Annello, the region’s manager of waste planning and technical services, pegged the capital costs for a facility at around $165 million and said he was hopeful it would be built within the next 36 months.

Finally, at the latest committee of the whole meeting, staff proposed the region partner with Edmonton-based company Epcor Ltd.

The company is Canada’s first municipally-owned electric and utility company.

Today, it provides water, wastewater, drainage services, and energy to its customers.

Staff said a list of potential sites is in the midst of development.

The issue will come up for discussion again at the Sept. 25 regional council meeting.

While organics management may not necessarily be a hot button issue to taxpayers, the road to an anaerobic digester in Durham Region has most definitely seen its share of twists and turns.