Bird vs. Plane

Oct. 26, 2015

By Julie Masis

Less than five years after Montreal’s international airport lobbied against a plan to build a compost factory at the end of its runway, a similar facility is being planned near another Canadian airport.

In 2011, officials at the Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport argued that a compost factory should not be built on airport land because food scraps would attract birds and birds can collide with airplanes.

“It was (supposed to be built) less than a kilometer away from the end of the runway. Airplanes would have passed above the factory,” says Christiane Beaulieu, the Montreal airport’s vice president of public affairs.

The airport, which employs five trained falcons to chase away the less educated birds from the skies, refused to rent its land to the City of Montreal for the construction of the factory.

But now a similar facility is being planned near a smaller airport nearby. The Saint-Hubert Airport, which is located south of Montreal, is the ninth busiest airport in Canada, handling approximately 150,000 flights per year within the province of Quebec. The airport has a flight school and welcomes airplanes with as many as 42 passengers.

In the next five years, an indoor biomethanation compost plant is scheduled to be built less than a mile away from the runway used by its flight school-- transforming leftover food, grass and leaves into compost and biogas that will be used to produce electricity. The factory will cost $85 million to build, and will have the capacity to treat 70,000 tons of organic material per year, produce 30,000 tons of compost and 6.5 million cubic meters of biogas. The biogas generated by the plant can be used as fuel for buses or as electricity to heat homes. It will be one of the largest--and most advanced-- electricity-generating compost factories in North America. All together, the treatment plant will help to decrease greenhouse gasses by approximately 10,000 tons annually by reducing the transportation of waste to landfills and by cutting down on the consumption of fossil fuels, according to a factsheet on the facility.

The spokesman for the City of Longueuil, where the government-subsidized compost plant will be built, says the facility will not attract wildlife because all the garbage will be inside the building. 

“Since it will be a closed building, and since none of the garbage or edible waste will be accessible, the biomethanation facility will not attract birds and other animals,” the city’s spokesman Renaud Beauchemin wrote in an email. “The construction of the plant should not lead to any increase in the number of birds near the airport.”

The factory will install odor-reducing filters and devices that use negative pressure to keep the smell of rotting food from escapingaccording to Beauchemin. There will be no ponds for ducks, herons or seagulls to swim in, and coniferous trees will be planted rather than other types of trees because coniferous trees provide fewer places for birds to land. In addition, “any external structures that produce heat or can serve as shelters will also be designed to be inaccessible to birds,” Beauchemin wrote. The doors of the factory will be shut while garbage trucks unload their cargo inside the factory, and the trucks’ wheels will be washed before they are permitted to exit.

Flocking to the Airport

But Montreal airport officials say that even with all these measures, birds might still flock to the area.

Back in 2011, the Montreal airport hired consultants to visit two similar indoor compost factories in the province of Ontario and take photographs. “You can see (on the photos) that birds fly around there,” Beaulieu sayssays.

Garbage trucks that will bring food to the factory are another concern, she says.

“Have you seen a garbage truck before? There is always some garbage that falls out of it,” Beaulieu says. “They would have trucks waiting in line to get into the factory. Garbage trucks that wait for 15, 20, 30 minutes--for the airport that could be a risk.”

According to plans for the compost facility near the Saint-Hubert airport, there will be 20 trucks per day bringing organic waste including food to the plant in the summer and winter and 45 trucks per day in the spring and autumn to account for extra leaves and grass. 

“Before they exit the factory, the wheels of the garbage trucks are cleaned, but when they come in, they are not cleaned,” Beaulieu says.

 Manage Wildlife

The Canadian government does not outlaw composting factories near airports, but there is a recommendation according to which a compost facility should not be located within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius of the airport, according to Anne Marcotte, the Montreal airport’s director of communications.

The Canadian government does require all certified airports to have a wildlife management plan in place, according to Lesley Husbands, a spokeswoman for the Quebec region of Transport Canada. The Saint-Hubert airport already put such a plan in place, she says.

The Saint-Hubert airport occasionally has birds colliding with airplanes. There are generally between two and three bird strikes per year, according to General Director Michel Beaudoin--but most of these are not serious, he says, because the bird hits an airplane’s wing rather than the engine. The seagull is the species that causes the most problems for the airport, Beaudoin says.

Airport officials use whistles and shoot blanks into the air to scare away birds with noise. 

“Some weeks we do nothing. Some days it’s three or four times per day,” Beaudoin says.

Beaudoin says he is not particularly concerned about an indoor compost factory near the runway.

“It changes nothing. They could have put a company there or an apartment block or condos,” he says. “But if it had been an open-air dump--that would have been a different story.”

When asked about the possibility that some food might fall off the garbage trucks, he laughed.

“I never saw a bird following a garbage truck,” he says.


Julie Masis is a freelance journalist. Her stories have been published in the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, the Guardian, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and in other newspapers and magazines. In addition to Canada and the United States, she has reported from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.