Guelph’s Titanic –The new organic garbage disposal plant

The City of Guelph is asking the Ministry of Environment if it can accept plastic bags of wet garbage in its $33 million Organic Waste Processing Facility (OWPF).

The official title of the plant is the tony “Waste Resource Innovation Centre.” But what’s in a name?

Now, before we begin, let’s establish the definition of “plastic”.  This application is to be allowed to accept biodegradable plastic collection bags.

Since 2002, citizens have been sorting their waste in tri-coloured plastic bags. The kind that take 1,000 years to degrade.

This was a system created in 2001 by then Mayor Karen Farbridge and her environmental sidekick Janet Laird, chief of waste management for the city.

It seemed like a good idea at the time but the Mayor was defeated in the following election.

Mayor Farbridge was re-elected in 2006 and proceeded to turn Guelph into the organic waste disposal capital of Ontario along with a public relations campaign declaring Guelph as the best place to live, lowest crime rate in the country and, oops, the highest debt in Ontario.

But the plot sickens.

Let’s see. In 2008, Ms. Laird pulls together an idea to build a $33 million wet waste plant. It was to be built on the former wet waste plant site that was shut down because of smelling up the neighbourhood and being mismanaged. This time, like the phoenix, a new waste management plant would arise and meet the needs of the City of Guelph for more than 25 years.

Indeed, it was predicted that wet waste from other municipalities would create a profit centre for the city.

Who would know better than the staff directed by the Mayor and her fellow travelers on council?

Along came Guelph’s Titanic

So the deal was hatched and a company was engaged to build the plant, run it and negotiate contracts with other municipalities to feed the plant to meet its 60,000 tonnes per year capacity.

By comparison, that’s more than the 46,325 gross tonnage of the RMS Titanic. And we know what happened to that ship.

Can anyone imagine plunking  a vessel the size of the Titanic at the Dunlop Drive facility, plus another 14,000 tonnes.

Why build such an oversized plant at the Guelph taxpayer’s expense? Perhaps it was driven by some power egos determined to prove their inflated global theories of waste management.

For the record, Guelph generates about 10,000 tonnes of wet waste a year or 15 per cent of its Titanic-plant capacity.

Instead, in 2008, at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the staff and majority of elected councillors, operating beyond the glare of public input, signed the deal with Maple Reinders Construction.

The plant started operating September 11, 2011. It has yet to produce contracted volumes of reusable compost.

In fact, the current test run to bring the plant up to its contracted production is not using wet waste from Guelph but importing 900 tonnes, over six weeks, from Hamilton.

Did we mention the stuff was coming in plastic bags, the kind that takes 1,000 years to degrade?

In the fall of 2011, there were complaints of odours from nearby residents. The contractor was instructed to remedy the complaints.

              The plant was missing the parts to eliminate odours

Seems some important parts, including ammonia scrubbers, were left out of the construction. This caused leaks. escaping from the stack, to stink up the neighbourhood.

Momma Mia! The whole plan created by Ms. Laird and her team was to eliminate air-borne smells. The plant was not ready to meet neighbouring long-standing odour complaints.

The bottom line. The plant takes in tonnes of wet waste and by a process based on microbiology, magically turns the waste into reusable compost. There are complications. The temperature year round must be within a range to permit the microbes to do their appointed task. If it’s too hot they lay down on the job. If it’s too cold the same thing happens. Meanwhile, the trucks keep rolling in to dump their waste. Not only from Guelph, but now we learn from the Regional Municipality of Waterloo.

That means wet waste from Kitchener, Waterloo and other parts of the Regional Municipality, is heading for Guelph for processing. Is that a great investment or what?

Along came a $15 million spider.

Then, in the middle of the construction phase, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) informs the city it cannot use its current plastic bag collection system. The city council approves spending an additional $15 million to convert waste collection to an automated system employing special trucks and bins.

The bill to Guelph taxpayers has now reached $50 million. That’s $33 million for the plant, $15 million for the new bin collection system plus another $2 million for carrying charges and design changes.

Let’s recap at this point.

Council and staff have committed taxpayers to paying $50 million for a system that has yet to work. Unknowingly, taxpayers are financing a large scale regional Organic Waste Processing Facility (OWPF), the payback of which is uncertain.

Now the city is appealing to the MOE to allow waste to be delivered not in “plastic “ bags but in biodegradable “plastic” bags produced by an Ontario company.

Let’s get this straight. The city commits to spending $50 million, only to discover there exists the option of using bio-degradable plastic bags to collect the waste. The MOE issued a draft of new guidelines in 2009 that would allow the use of biodegradable plastic bags, provided the composting facility was designed to handle the material.

Despite this advice, Council agreed to spend $15 million on a new bin collection system. The decision was based on the MOE denial of using petroleum-based plastic bags in new organic waste facilities, as has been the case in the city for almost ten years.

But that was not quite true, was it?

Was there no discussion between the city, Maple Reinders and the province about the availability of bio-degradable plastic bags before the $15 million decision was made?

There was no business plan for the project

Now taxpayers are stuck with a $15 million bill, a $33 million plant that is very seriously overbuilt and this was all done without a business plan. That’s one of the reasons why the city refuses to make public the real operating costs of the plant, including the 21st century automated-collection system.

Already there is a citizen’s revolt over the bin deal with many questions yet to be answered by staff. Just remember, the days of heavy snow storms will cripple collection of wet waste and back-up receiving material at the plant.

This is a monumental mistake and Guelph citizens are stuck with a disposal system that will take years to pay off. Furthermore it is dependent on the bulk of inbound feedstock coming from other municipalities.

Some questions needing answers

Who made the decision to build a plant with a 60,000 tonne capacity a year, with the City of Guelph only supplying 10,000 tonnes of wet waste per year?

What is the plan to get rid of potential tonnes of composted material? Think Titanic, think big.

What are the real operating costs of the venture?

What profits, if any, can be expected?

What damages will be done to Guelph roads from garbage trucks, from other municipalities, bringing material to the plant?

Who decided to spend an additional $15 million to convert the waste collection system to automated trucks and bins?

When did the city learn that bio-degradable plastic bags containing wet waste would be acceptable at the plant for conversion to compost.

Why wasn’t the public informed of the contract agreements between Maple Reinders Contracting and its subsidiary companies that are part of the waste management plan?

This is a dereliction of responsibility on the part of city Council that has placed this heavy burden on the taxpayers.



Filed under Between the Lines

13 responses to “Guelph’s Titanic –The new organic garbage disposal plant

  1. Fantastic post, Gerry — regrettably. Get started on your book about this, if you haven’t yet. A cautionary tale about hubris-driven misadventure that can take form in any number of ways, under the right political conditions.

    Hats off.

  2. paul

    This information is mindboggling and only adds fuel to my anger and disappointment at the way the city is being run….is the Guelph Mercury unwilling to print any of this infomation, Gerry?

  3. Glen N. Tolhurst

    I recall that the issue of bio-degradable green bags was the subject of a lawsuit between the city of Ottawa (wanting to use them) and the MOE with the decision favouring the city, yet Guelph went ahead with the bins.

    • Glen N. Tolhurst: I think you are right. Regardless, those in charge of the Titanic project blundered on determined to re-invent a $15 million collection system that was not necessary. I maintain that ego got in the way of common sense.

    • paul

      and this surprises you?????? nothing that Mayor Farbridge and her 8 puppets do surprises me any more….continues to disgust me!!!!

  4. Ruby

    Gerry, I don’t know whether to scream or cry or maybe both after reading your FANTASTIC essay(post).
    Actually, I feel revulsed and sickened by the narcissism and self-serving egos at City Hall over the past decade with Karen and gang.
    Do you have any thoughts on who is considering running for Mayor and council in 2014?

    • Ruby: It’s a little early in the game. I have spoken with a number of folks who share your views about the way this city is being managed. My best advice at this point is to talk to your friends and neighbors. And invite them to participate in our growing number of citizens looking for change at 1 Carden Street. is an open forum of expression and open for contributions and comments.

  5. geo

    Is there any way out from under this enormous white elephant?

    • Geo: I’m not optimistic. It’s a debt that we must pay. Our task is not to ever allow this to occur again.That means we must organize as taxpayers to shut this Farbridge dominated council down until we can defeat them at the polls in 2014

  6. mjb

    Gerry-admire your insight – maybe the more people educated in the community about the way our city is being ruined, the more people will get out and vote for change.
    Keep up the good work.

    • paulphelan

      Well said mjb

    • mjb: Thanks for the compliment. My goal is to inform citizens of the way our city is being managed. The picture at present is dismal and the controlling Farbridge element still has another two years in power. Now I’m feeling dismal! The cure is to talk to as many people as possible and let them judge and contribute to making a better city. Our time will come and we will need as many hands on deck as possible. The people must create change and elect councillors who will apply common sense and real leadership. They will be facing a mess and it will be a daunting task to correct the mistakes of the previous eight years.

  7. Jeff Burke

    If those recyclables were worth anything, wouldn’t they all be stolen before the garbage truck shows up in the morning? In Vancouver in the 90’s, the market for recycled kitchen grease was so high, restaurants had to lock their storage tanks.
    One way to cut waste disposal costs is to put as much as possible into the clear bags— it is landfilled at a fraction the price of the green or blue streams.

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