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The Paper Sludge Story

Recycling in Ontario Shows the Dark Side of Green

by Mary Ann Pearson.Originally published in the Ontario Daylily Society Newsletter, October 2005

A MillWatch Special Report, sponsored by Reach for Unbleached and published in the Watershed Sentinel, May 2006

In late 2005, the BC Ministry of Environment announced its intention to allow landspreading of pulp mill sludge with no requirement for permits and with minimal monitoring. The BC Code of Practise met great public concern and is now being reconsidered. Communities in Ontario have already been around that block over the sludge from paper recycling. Here is their story.

On a frosty morning in early December 2004, the trucks came. We heard them rumbling down our rural Cayuga road at 5:30 a.m. We heard the tailgates slamming after their contents were emptied onto a farm field a little to the west of us opposite our property. The white unnamed 18-wheelers kept coming and going up and down the road all day, the next day and the day after that.

What was this pile of rapidly accumulating dark grey material with a bluish tinge and an odour of vomit? After neighbours became alarmed, a nearby resident inquired and was told it was “Nitro-sorb,” a mixture of paper sludge, compost and lime touted as a “soil amendment.”

A quick survey of paper sludge on the internet indicated that most safe water advocates considered it an “environmental disaster.” Different colours soon appeared in the pile, white, brown, reddish-orange, and were mixed in by bulldozers.
Over one thousand tonnes of paper sludge waste are produced every single day from recycling operations in Ontario and it all has to go somewhere.

Over one thousand tonnes of paper sludge waste are produced every single day from recycling operations in Ontario and it all has to go somewhere.

The stockpile grew to the size of a hockey arena, 8,000 cubic metres as estimated by the Ministry of the Environment (MoE). It sat there for six months near the neighbouring farmhouse of a family with two small children and resulted in 28 complaints about dust and odour to the MoE from people in the immediate area. Finally, in July 2005 it was spread on the field.

My husband and I have discovered a lot of information about paper sludge, both Nitro-sorb and Sound-sorb, a similar material used in sound attenuation berms. We have made presentations to Haldimand County Council hoping that they will take a stand against it.

Paper sludge, also known as paper fibre biosolids, is the residue left over from the paper recycling process. It consists of unusable short fibres, inks and dyes, clay, glues and other residue, along with any chemicals used in the recovery process. The volume of this generated waste is considerable: the Atlantic Packaging operations in Toronto and Whitby generate about 700 tonnes of waste per day, and the Abitibi-Consolidated mill in Thorold produces another 450 tonnes per day. Half or more of the raw paper used in this recycling process comes from outside the province and therefore is not a result of our own blue-box programmes. This imported waste paper may contain inks and dyes that are not subject to Ontario regulations and could be potentially harmful.

This waste material must be disposed of in some way. From 1990 to 2001, Atlantic Packaging was allowed to spread paper sludge on farmland by permit from the MoE. Due to community concerns about the possible harmful impact on air and groundwater quality, as well as no provable benefit to crops, no further permits were issued to Atlantic after 2001. At about this time, Courtice Auto Wreckers of Durham Region registered the Trademark names “Sound-sorb” and “Nitro-sorb” as a way around this. It should be noted that these trademark names are not patents, and the product descriptions as registered do not even mention paper fibre biosolids in either case. Both these “products” consist mainly of recycled paper sludge, and as “products” they are deemed by the MoE to be exempt from regulation as wastes.

“Sound-sorb” is paper sludge mixed with sand, and has been used as berm material around shooting ranges. There are now over thirty such berms in Ontario. In December 2004, Courtice Auto Wreckers was fined $10,000 for violating the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s fill regulations by placing a berm of “Sound-sorb” beside Fletcher Creek. Effluent samples had been tested and found to be 100% fatal to trout and water fleas. The toxic effluent contained lead, high levels of fecal streptococci, and exceeded the Provincial Water Quality Standards for e-coli and pH levels, iron, cobalt, molybdenum, aluminum, and copper.

“Nitro-sorb” is paper sludge mixed with other materials which are said to be “finished compost,” and some sort of lime. It is being spread on farmland in several regions of Ontario as a fertilizer or soil amendment. As a “product” it is not subject to MoE supervision or control. The MoE will only become involved in the event of a public complaint.

Public Concerns about Sound-Sorb and Nitro-Sorb

The Ontario Environment Ministry’s Regulation 347 allows for certain wastes to be exempt from control if they are to be transferred directly to a site, wholly used in a process for purposes other than waste management, and then offered as a product for retail sale. This exemption was granted to Sound-Sorb in 1999, and Nitro-Sorb was allowed to fall under this exemption as well. In his 2003 Annual Report, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gord Miller stated: “MoE has mishandled the Sound-Sorb issue repeatedly since 1999, when questions first arose about the status of this material. The ministry’s first, and probably most significant, error was to decide that Sound-Sorb was exempt from Regulation 347 of the Environmental Protection Act because it is a product rather than a waste.”

The use of paper fibre biosolids in these “products” has raised public alarm all across Ontario. In Durham region, the widespread placement of paper fibre biosolids on the Oak Ridges Moraine led to the formation of the citizens’ group Protect the Ridges with over 400 members. Opposition elsewhere in Ontario has been less well organized, but just as vocal. On July 7, 2005 a public meeting in Whitby called by the Ministry of the Environment to discuss the Sound-Sorb issue, drew angry citizens from as far away as Orillia, Huntsville, Cayuga, and Kawartha Lakes.

Some of the concerns that have been raised about paper fibre biosolids mixtures include the potential adverse effects of pathogens, heavy metals, and chemicals on groundwater and surface run-off, as well as the possibility of airborne exposure to pathogens such as moulds and fungus spores from the decomposition of the materials. Initial testing of the Sound-Sorb berm at the Oshawa Skeet and Gun Club done for the Durham Region Health Department in 2001 found high levels of both fecal coliform bacteria and e-coli. Other testing of groundwater around the berm also indicated exceedences for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons, and Benzo(a)Pyrene, a known carcinogen. Testing at the Sound-Sorb berm at the East Elgin Sportsmens’ Association in Aylmer also revealed high levels of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons.

People living in close proximity to Sound-Sorb berms or Nitro-Sorb stockpiles and treated land have reported headaches, fatigue, and respiratory problems including asthma and persistent coughs. Nitro-Sorb has the potential to contain unknown ingredients in addition to paper fibre biosolids, since it is said to contain “finished compost” As an unregulated product there is no requirement on the part of the operator to disclose what this material might consist of, or where it came from, and therefore no documentation that can be verified in the event of an environmental or health complaint. In December 2004, the Durham Region Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kyle made a recommendation that a moratorium be placed on construction of Sound-Sorb berms, and stockpiling of paper fibre biosolids on farmlands. This was supported by Durham Regional Council in a vote December 15, 2004. Prior to this, in 2001 the Association of Local Public Health Agencies (alPHa) passed a resolution urging the Government of Ontario to amend the Environmental Protection Act such that the spreading and storage of all biosolids, including paper fibre biosolids requires a certificate of approval be issued by a Director.

An important condition for allowing the use of Non-Agricultural Source Materials such as paper fibre bio-solids on farmland should be that a provable benefit be demonstrated. Testing was done in the 1990s for Atlantic Packaging by Fine Analysis Labs, a company later prosecuted for fraud and put out of business for forging water test results. Year after year little or no benefit to crops was found. Local residents and farmers in Clarington, Brock Township, and Victoria County were very alarmed. Citizen’s groups like the Brock Land Stewards, the Uxbridge Conservation Association, and Protect the Ridges sprang up to oppose these waste initiatives. By 2001 tests conducted by the MoE showed that crops that required nitrogen (wheat, tomatoes, etc) were damaged by the paper sludge even when supplemental nitrogen was added. Paper fibre biosolids are high in carbon and take nitrogen out of the soil as they decompose, so that the only crops that are not adversely affected are those that fix their own nitrogen, such as soybeans. In January 2005 the Haldimand Federation of Agriculture (HFA) called on the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food to conduct sampling of Nitro-Sorb to include physical composition, pathogens, and metals. They also requested long-term studies (8-10 years) be done to measure the effects on soils and to determine application rates depending on the crop. HFA also asked that Non-Agricultural Source Materials destined for further processing and/or blending remain under the regulatory umbrella of the MoE throughout the process.

The Experts Panel on Sound-Sorb

In response to the public concerns about Sound-Sorb, the Ontario Government formed a panel of experts and interested stakeholders in March, 2004 to study the Sound-Sorb issue and make recommendations. The panel released its report on January 31, 2005. Among its conclusions were the following:

“Paper fibre biosolids are a waste. Their bulk use in the environment even after composting requires regulatory control. Paper fibre biosolids should be controlled by Certificates of Approval or legal instruments that provide equal or better protection for human health and the environment at all stages from its generation, through transport, composting and final use in the construction of berms. The use of paper fibre biosolid material mixed with mineral soil should also be subject to MoE control with respect to its preparation and use in the environment by a Certificate of Approval or legal instrument that provides equal or better protection for human health and the environment.”

Public Supports the Experts Panel Conclusions

As of the public meeting on July 7, 2005, the MoE had received over 400 signed form letters, 17 responses from individuals, 8 from municipalities, 5 from Conservation Authorities (including Ontario), and 4 from other interested groups. All responses requested the MoE to take immediate action, revoke the present exemption, set clear standards for future applications, and establish testing and placement protocols.

Included are the municipalities of Scugog, Clarington, Oshawa, Durham Region, Malahide Township, Brock Township, Catfish Creek Conservation Authority, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority, and others. Several municipalities have gone even further than this. The Township of Madoc passed a resolution requesting a halt to Nitro-Sorb spreading and circulated this to all municipalities in Ontario for support. The City of Kawartha Lakes passed a resolution effectively regulating paper fibre biosolids in that municipality in the absence of MoE regulation. The Municipality of Centre Hastings also passed an interim by-law placing strict controls on the use of paper fibre biosolids for a period of one year.

Commercial composting operations that provide soil mixes and fertilizers for gardens, lawns, and commercial potting soils are regulated by the Ministry of the Environment to take waste products including paper sludge under Certificates of Approval. However, once these materials are prepared for sale they are no longer regulated by the MoE. Paper fibre biosolids (paper sludge) may or may not be present. If you buy bulk garden soil or fertilizer and are concerned about the presence of paper fibre biosolids or any other waste in it such as municipal biosolids (sewage sludge), ask questions. Products should have a Material Safety Data Sheet which would disclose potentially toxic ingredients and any possible health and safety risk.


Be on the lookout for bluish-grey piles of Nitro-Sorb appearing on your local farm fields, as well as the blue-grey colour of fields that have been treated with it. Also watch for large berms of Sound-Sorb appearing at your local gun club. After all, over one thousand tonnes of paper sludge waste are produced every single day from recycling operations in Ontario and it all has to go somewhere.

If you are concerned about Ontario farmlands being used as dumping grounds for paper fibre biosolids, please express your concerns to:

Minister of the Environment, Honourable Laurel C. Broten, 12th Floor, 135 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, Ontario M4V 1P5. Ph: 416-314-6790 ; Fax: 416-314-7337.

If you want BC pulp mills to require Pollution Permits for disposal of their sludge, with due public oversight, as is the current situation, contact BC Minister of Environment Barry Penner:


Ph: 250-387-1187; Fax: 250-387-1356

PO Box 9047, STN PROV GOVT, Victoria BC V8W 9E2


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