Section 3: Solid waste

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Solid waste can be hazardous or non-hazardous and is generated by many sources including residential, commercial, institutional and industrial. Municipal solid waste is regulated by the provinces and territories and managed by the waste management industry under contract to municipal or regional authorities. In contrast, solid waste from industrial processes can be handled directly by the producer and disposed of either on land or in water.

Municipal solid waste

Used packaging, food scraps, old computers and newspapers generated by business and household activities are all examples of municipal solid waste. Residential waste is generated by households and can be picked up by the municipality, private waste management companies or transported by households to collection, recycling and disposal facilities. Non-residential waste includes non-hazardous waste generated by industrial, commercial and institutional sources as well as waste generated by construction and demolition activities.

Municipal solid waste can be managed through disposal in landfills or incinerators or can be diverted from disposal through recycling or composting. Waste diversion can reduce the demand for energy and new resources by re-using materials that have already been produced (for example, aluminum, glass, plastics and paper). As a result, it can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

From 2002 to 2008, municipal solid waste disposal increased slightly from 769 kilograms to 777 kilograms per capita. During the same time period, solid waste diversion increased from 212 kilograms to 254 kilograms per capita (see Textbox: Waste Management Industry Survey: Coverage).

Solid waste can impact the environment in various ways, depending on how it is managed. For example, waste disposal may contribute to soil and water contamination, while methane gas produced at landfills contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (see Textbox: Landfills and incineration).

Waste Management Industry Survey: Coverage

Unless otherwise indicated, Section 3.1 Municipal solid waste uses data from the Waste Management Industry Survey: Business and Government Sectors. 1 

The estimates presented in this section refer only to waste that is processed by firms or local governments that are part of the waste management industry as classified by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Waste that bypasses the waste management industry is not included in survey coverage.

For example, estimates do not include waste managed on-site by companies or households. While the majority of residential waste is handled by municipalities or private businesses, a significant quantity of non-residential waste is managed on-site by industrial generators or is transported directly to secondary processors such as pulp and paper mills.

The estimates also do not include materials that were processed for reuse and resale (for example, wholesaling of scrap metal or used clothing) or materials that were collected through deposit-return systems (for example, food and beverage containers and tires).

Agricultural waste is not covered by these surveys. This waste is typically managed on-farm or by specialized firms that are not classified as part of the waste management industry under NAICS.

The waste management industry in Canada

A range of services are provided by the waste management industry: collection and transportation of waste and materials for disposal and diversion (recycling and composting); operation of non-hazardous and hazardous waste disposal facilities; operation of transfer stations; operation of recycling and composting facilities; and treatment of hazardous waste.

Waste management services are provided by one of two sources: public bodies, such as local governments or waste management boards or commissions, and private firms that enter into contracts with local governments or businesses to provide waste management services. In 2008, there were 31,344 full-time workers employed in the waste management industry, 81% working in the business sector and the remainder employed by government.

Total current expenditures on solid waste management by local governments were $2.6 billion in 2008, a $1.1 billion increase over 2002. Of this, 42% went to collection and transportation, while operation of disposal facilities accounted for 18% and tipping fees accounted for 14% (Chart 3.1).


With few exceptions, materials thrown in the garbage are destined for waste disposal facilities where they are either landfilled or incinerated (see Textbox: Landfills and incineration and Textbox: Energy from waste).

In 2008, Canadians sent 25,871,310 tonnes of solid waste for disposal (777 kilograms per capita), a 7% increase over 2002 (Table 3.1). At a provincial level, the largest increases were seen in Alberta (39%) and New Brunswick (16%). Nova Scotia was the only province that experienced a decrease in waste disposal (-9%).

Residential solid waste made up a third of total waste disposal in 2008, although this proportion varied by province. In Newfoundland and Labrador, residential sources accounted for 53% of waste disposal, compared to 24% in Alberta.

From 2002 to 2008, residential solid waste disposal remained nearly stable, increasing by 1%, from 8,446,766 tonnes to 8,536,891 tonnes (Table 3.1). However, on a per capita basis, it decreased 5% to 256 kilograms. Per capita residential solid waste disposal was highest in Newfoundland and Labrador (429 kilograms) and lowest in Nova Scotia (158 kilograms) in 2008 (Chart 3.2).

Landfills and incineration

Landfills are used as the primary means for the disposal of waste materials in Canada. The main environmental concerns related to landfills are leachate and landfill gas.

As liquid moves through the landfill, it picks up a variety of toxic and polluting components in large or trace amounts forming leachate, which can potentially contaminate ground and surface water. Sanitary landfills control the types and quantities of incoming waste and use liners and leachate collection and treatment systems to prevent water and soil contamination.

Landfill gas is formed as organic material decomposes in landfills. This gas is composed mainly of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in terms of its global warming potential. 2  It also includes CO2, small amounts of nitrogen and oxygen, and trace amounts of a wide range of other gases. Concerns about landfill gas include fires, explosions, vegetation damage and unpleasant odours. 3  In 2009, emissions of methane from landfills accounted for 22% of national methane emissions and 3% of total GHG emissions. 4  Landfill gas can be captured and flared, converting the methane to CO2 and reducing odour, or used to generate electricity or provide fuel substitutes. 5  In 2009, 349 kilotonnes of methane were captured and combusted, half of which was used in energy applications while the rest was flared. 6 

Incineration includes a range of practices, from low-tech open burning to controlled combustion processes using mass burn systems and other types of modern incinerators using pollution control devices that burn waste at temperatures between 900 and 1,100°C. 7  Less than 5% of municipal solid waste disposal goes to incineration in Canada. 8 

One of the benefits of incineration is the reduction of the amount of waste for disposal. However, incineration creates gaseous waste and ash and can contribute to air pollution. In 2009, municipal incineration released 677 tonnes of particulate matter (PM) (0.004% of total emissions of PM), 350 tonnes of sulphur oxides (SOx) (0.02% of total emissions of SOx), 1,364 tonnes of nitrogen oxides (NOx) (0.06% of total emissions of NOx), 602 tonnes of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (0.002% of total emissions of VOCs), 1,330 tonnes of carbon monoxide (CO) (0.01% of total emissions of CO) and 19 tonnes of ammonia (NH3) (0.004% of total emissions of NH3) into the atmosphere. 9 

Dioxins and furans, which are persistent organic pollutants, are potential contaminants from incineration. These toxic, bioaccumulative chemicals can result from incomplete combustion due to inadequate technology or improper incinerator operation. 10 

Mercury is another potential bioaccumulative contaminant that can be emitted when items containing mercury are placed into the incinerator. Limiting the amount of mercury in waste as well as the use of specialized air pollution control equipment reduces releases of mercury. 11 

Non-residential waste made up two-thirds of total solid waste disposal in 2008. From 2002 to 2008, non-residential solid waste disposal increased by 11%, from 15,634,606 tonnes to 17,334,419 tonnes (Table 3.1). The largest increases were seen in Alberta (52%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (21%).

Energy from waste

Energy from waste facilities are highly efficient power plants that produce heat and electricity using municipal solid waste as fuel, thereby replacing the energy produced by conventional power plants that use fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, or natural gas.

Of the seven municipal incineration plants located across Canada, five generate energy, burning approximately 763,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste. Approximately 3% of disposed waste was incinerated at energy from waste facilities in 2006. 12 


Waste can be diverted from disposal facilities and processed at recycling or composting facilities (see Textbox: Recycling and composting).

The average diversion rate—the amount of waste diverted as a proportion of waste generated—has increased from 22% in 2002 to 25% in 2008. In 2008, Nova Scotia had the highest provincial diversion rate at 45%.

In 2008, 8,473,257 tonnes of solid waste were diverted for recycling or composting, a 28% increase from 2002 (Table 3.2). Over this period, the largest increases were seen in New Brunswick (105%) and Nova Scotia (51%) while Manitoba saw a 21% decline.

In 2008, 254 kilograms of solid waste were diverted for each Canadian, a 20% increase from 2002. New Brunswick and British Columbia had the highest per capita solid waste diversion at 358 kilograms and 343 kilograms respectively.

In 2008, residential sources accounted for 51% of solid waste diversion in Canada, while non-residential sources accounted for the remainder. This proportion differed by province: residential sources made up two-thirds of solid waste diversion in Ontario, while non-residential waste made up more than three-quarters of solid waste diversion in New Brunswick.

From 2002 to 2008, diversion of solid waste from residential sources increased from 2,789,669 tonnes to 4,360,505 tonnes, a 56% increase. Diversion of solid waste from non-residential sources increased by 7%, from 3,851,879 tonnes to 4,112,752 tonnes (Table 3.2).

Recycling and composting

Recycling is the process whereby materials such as glass, metal, plastic or paper are diverted from the waste stream and remanufactured into new products or used as raw material substitutes.

Composting is a process in which organic material is broken down into simpler substances by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. The end product is a stable humus-like product called compost that can be used for landscaping, gardening or other purposes. Examples of organic waste that can be composted include food scraps, yard waste, agricultural crop residues, paper products, sewage sludge and wood. 13 

Recycling and composting divert waste from disposal. In addition, recycling can provide an alternative source of materials to the extraction and production of virgin resources. 14 

Diversion, by type of waste

By weight, organic materials 15  accounted for the largest proportion of waste diversion in 2008, with 2,439,223 tonnes diverted, 29% of total waste diversion, followed by cardboard and boxboard (17%) and newsprint (13%) (Table 3.3 and Chart 3.3).

Diversion of organic materials increased by 1,128,433 tonnes from 2002 to 2008—an 86% increase. Rapid growth was also experienced in the diversion of plastics (126%) although this material accounts for a much smaller proportion of diversion overall.

Hazardous waste

Hazardous waste is that which cannot be handled by the normal waste and recycling programs, usually because it is environmentally harmful or because it poses a health hazard to collection and processing staff. Hazardous waste materials may exhibit characteristics such as flammability, corrosiveness or toxicity and require special treatment before disposal or recycling.

Household hazardous waste

Household hazardous waste can include compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and fluorescent tubes, both of which contain mercury; batteries that contain acids and heavy metals such as cadmium and lithium; electronics such as cell phones and televisions; paints and solvents; and medication. These materials should be taken to hazardous waste depots, drop-off centres or returned to suppliers or retailers for safe treatment and disposal.

Of the 58% of households that had batteries 16  to dispose of in 2009, 42% discarded them in the garbage (Table 3.4). Households also frequently had medication, paint or solvents that they wished to dispose of, but the majority returned these materials safely to suppliers or waste depots and drop-off centres.


With the rapid increase in the popularity of cellular phones, computers, televisions and other electronic devices, it is increasingly important to ensure that this electronic equipment waste or e-waste undergoes environmentally sound management at the end of its useful life. In 2009, 77% of households had at least one cellular telephone, 82% had at least one home computer and 99% had at least one colour television. 17  Many of these products contain copper, aluminum and gold, as well as metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

Electronics recycling programs help keep electronic devices out of landfills and recover useful resources. 18  Electronics recycling programs currently exist in British Columbia (start date 2007), Alberta (2005), Saskatchewan (2007), Ontario (2009), Nova Scotia (2007) and Prince Edward Island (2010). These programs have diverted over 172,000 tonnes of end-of-life electronics from landfills since 2004. 19 

In 2009, 36% of households reported having electronic devices they wished to dispose of (Table 3.5). These households most frequently used a depot or drop-off centre for e-waste disposal (45%), while 22% donated unwanted electronic products or gave them away. Twenty-eight percent of households still had their unwanted electronic devices at home.

Households in Saskatchewan were most likely to use a depot or drop-off centre (69%) for e-waste disposal. Households in Newfoundland and Labrador (36%), Prince Edward Island (35%) and New Brunswick (34%) were most likely to still have unwanted electronic devices.

Radioactive waste

Managing radioactive waste poses a unique challenge because of the long-term toxicity of some of the byproducts. Highly radioactive waste such as spent nuclear fuels poses the greatest risk. These materials are highly regulated, monitored and contained. Middle and lower-level radioactive waste from research labs or radium contaminated soils is less toxic, but still requires monitoring.

Radioactive waste has been produced in Canada since the 1930s. Radium was the first radioactive material to be processed and was used in medicine and as a luminescence agent in engineering applications. Today, radioactive waste in Canada comes primarily from uranium mining, milling, refining and conversion; nuclear fuel fabrication; nuclear reactor operations; nuclear research; and radioisotope manufacture and use.

Most of the accumulated inventory of low-level radioactive waste in Canada was produced many years ago by mining and processing activities. The amount of low-level waste in storage is now expected to increase only moderately by 2050. Most intermediate-level radioactive waste is generated by nuclear research and development activities. In 2007, this waste was accumulating at a rate of 890 cubic metres a year and the inventory of this waste is expected to increase to 79,000 cubic metres by 2050. The amount of higher level radio-active waste from nuclear power generation is also expected to more than double over the period (Table 3.6). 20 

Imports and exports of hazardous waste

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999 (CEPA 1999) enables regulations governing the export and import of hazardous waste, including hazardous recyclable materials.

In 2010, 358,236 tonnes of hazardous waste were imported into Canada (Table 3.7), the vast majority from the United States. Hazardous waste imported for disposal included solid waste no longer suitable for metal recovery, industrial residues and other environmentally hazardous substances. Recyclable materials made up 59% of total hazardous waste imports and included batteries, metal-bearing waste, liquors from metallurgical processes, lubricating oil and manufacturing residues. 21 

In 2010, 425,334 tonnes of hazardous waste were exported out of Canada, of which 83% was recyclable (Table 3.7). The majority of hazardous recyclable materials were sent to authorized facilities located in the northeastern and central United States. 22 

Natural resource residuals

Natural resource residuals are byproducts from extraction and production processes associated with natural resources such as waste rock from mining.

From 2001 to 2008, waste generation from mining activities increased by 55% (Table 3.8). Increased crude bitumen processing at oil sands projects accounted for the bulk of the increase in waste—solid and fluid tailings generated by the oil sands sector grew by 78%. However, waste production increased for most mineral extraction activities over the same period.

The rise in waste from mining can be partly explained by a rise in demand for minerals. From 2003 to 2008, the value of mineral assets grew significantly as a result of increased world prices. Mineral production and associated waste generation are very much tied to world prices—as prices for minerals fall or rise so too does production.

Livestock manure

Livestock manure 23  provides nutrients essential to plant growth, such as nitrogen and phosphorus and is a source of organic matter, which can help reduce soil erosion and improve soil's water-holding capacity. However, it can also be a source of pollution with impacts on the environment and human health.

In 2006, Canadian livestock produced over 180 million tonnes of manure, a 16% increase since 1981 (Table 3.9). Beef cattle were responsible for the largest proportion of manure (38%), followed by milk cows (12%), calves (12%) and heifers (12%).

Disposal at sea

Environment Canada issues permits for the disposal at sea of excavated earth, material dredged from waterways, fish processing waste, retired vessels and organic matter. Each permit is subject to a technical review and public notice. No permit is issued if practical alternatives to disposal at sea are available.

Between April 2000 and March 2011, 1,026 permits for disposal at sea were issued in Canada (Table 3.10), for disposal of 43,380,716 tonnes of waste. About 76% of this waste was dredged material waste. The Pacific and Yukon region accounted for close to two-thirds of permits by weight, allowing 28,442,422 tonnes of waste for disposal in their waters. Most of the permits issued in the Atlantic region were for fish waste.

Industrial pollutant releases to land

The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) measures the volume of pollutants released and disposed of by over 8,000 industrial facilities. Releases to land are pollutants released to the soil as a result of production and consumption processes in the economy. Some releases to soil may eventually enter the water system. 24 

The most common substances released and disposed of to land include hydrogen sulphide (639,425 tonnes), manganese (198,121 tonnes) and phosphorus (108,763 tonnes) (Table 3.11). The top ten substances account for over 93% of pollutants released and disposed of by industrial facilities to land in 2009.

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