A woman walking her dog. Photo: Stephen Goldberg

The details are still being worked out, but a dog waste composting pilot project scuttled by the pandemic could soon move ahead as more people — and more dog poop — fill local trails and parks.

“We are going to try a trial hopefully at some point this year. COVID’s been a bit of a challenge there,” Kirk Symonds, team lead-education and program delivery with HRM Solid Waste Resources, said in an interview.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to take a park somewhere in HRM and we’re going to set up bins that are specifically for dog feces, and that’s going to make it easier for us to actually compost it.”

In February of 2019, HRM’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee requested staff prepare a report on options for disposal of pet waste that would include an examination of green bins as pet waste disposal receptacles.

In a report dated Aug. 7, 2019, it was recommended the committee, through Halifax Regional Council, direct the Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé “to consider a pilot project or the collection of dog waste in select parks” as part of the business and budget planning process for implementation in 2020/21.

“In a bin in a park, you’re going to see a lot of dog poop. You’ll also see, unfortunately, straws, you’ll see plastic bags, you’ll see coffee cups,” Symonds said. “And so when you have that all commingled, that becomes problematic for actually processing it.”

Receptacle at the entrance to Sackville Lakes Provincial Park on May 18, 2021. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

When the dog waste is going directly into a landfill, Symonds said they’re not too concerned about what’s being used to pick up, contain and dispose of it. But when it comes to composting that waste, he said it gets “pretty tricky.”

“Now we have these bags and bags and bags of dog feces…We then have to de-bag that compost and that takes a lot of time, it takes effort, and it takes money,” he said.

Symonds said dog waste bags that claim to be biodegradable or organic “can mean a lot of things.” While you can purchase bags made from cornstarch — an organic material — when they go into a green bin, those bags will cause problems for processing.

He said it’s also difficult to distinguish between biodegradable bags and regular plastic.

“And a lot of these bags, depending on where you buy them, are just cheap plastic, so it’s going to break down into more plastic bits,” Symonds said.

“If it’s going in the garbage, it really doesn’t matter. But when we’re talking about trying to process this for compost, that’s where it becomes a tricky issue.”

While Symonds describes it as a question for down the road, the pilot project won’t require people to open their poop-filled bags to dump their dog doo straight into the composting receptacle.

“Right now when we’re looking at this project, we’re expecting that people will be putting dog waste in a bag and putting it in that bin and so we’re basically working with that as the model,” he said.

Symonds said he’s excited about the pilot project, noting that it’s an interesting way to look at a problem material. He points out that pet waste represents eight to 12% of the weight of all residential waste headed to the landfill. That weight includes kitty litter, dog feces, feathers, and pet bedding.

“That’s a significant amount, and if we can find ways to divert that and to keep it out of the landfill, I think that’s exciting,” Symonds said. “It’s a very complex issue and it will take time for us to come up with solutions. But I’m excited that we’re looking at this.”

Down in the dumps

As the number of people and canines hitting local parks and trails has increased, so has the volume of dog poop.

Sometimes left to fester in the middle of trails, put in bags that are tossed aside, or biffed into the woods where they get tangled in tree limbs, dog poop is an issue that has left volunteers tasked with overseeing trails down in the dumps.

Walter Regan, president of the Sackville Rivers Association is happy to hear about the dog waste composting pilot project. The non-profit association operates and maintains the Bedford-Sackville Connector Greenway Trail and also has “an advocacy responsibility” for the Sackville Greenway multi-use trail, which is owned and operated by HRM.

Sackville Rivers Association president Walter Regan.

“The proper disposal of pet manure is a good thing. We fully support it, all trail groups would, I’m sure, and all environmental people would I’m sure,” Regan said in an interview.

“But it all comes back to education. How do you get people to physically pick up their pet waste and then deliver that to the proper receptacle?”

Regan said while he applauds the initiative, he remains concerned by the numbers of people not properly cleaning up after their pets. He said with more people using trails since the pandemic began, this ever-present problem has only been exacerbated.

“We’re up to 25,000 people a year (on the Sackville Greenway Trail). Snap, just like that. And with that comes that small percentage of disrespectful people who throw their dog bags in the river, who throw the dog bags into the tree, or who don’t even pick up after their dog,” Regan said in an interview.

“It’s a two-edged sword. We want the public to walk the trails, to enjoy the environment, to enjoy the river. But with 95% of good people comes that percentage of people who are disrespectful.”

One of Walter Regan’s favourite “pick up after your dog” signs hails from Papakai Park in New Zealand. Photo: Contributed

In addition to the unpleasantness of stepping in dog waste or seeing bags laden with lumps hanging from trees alongside trails, Regan said pet waste and its accompanying bacteria can concentrate in lakes to the point where it causes health issues, particularly during the summer months. Also high in phosphorus, it encourages algae growth and leads to water quality degradation.

“When it comes to increased pet manure being deposited on the ground and thrown around, I myself have concerns, our association has concerns,” he said.

“When we look at our trail counters going back 13 years (on the Bedford-Sackville Connector), we also see a huge jump in usage there starting last year. It’s obvious the trails are definitely being used more by the public because of the pandemic.”

According to HRM spokesperson Erin DiCarlo, there were 9,680 dogs registered in the municipality in 2018. In 2019, the number dipped to 6,514. In 2020, it increased to 7,211. From Jan. 1, 2021 to April 23, 1,938 dogs had been registered in HRM. Dog owners must pay an annual licensing fee, although those whose dogs are microchipped can opt to pay for a lifetime license.

‘Waste removal, not waste relocation’

Regan said while the problem of dog owners not picking up their pet deposits has no easy solutions, there are two key elements. Ongoing public education including signage, and providing accessible receptacles that are regularly maintained and emptied to “make it easy” for those who want to do the right thing.

“That means HRM staff and cost, but I think it’s worthwhile. When you compare the numbers of trail users versus other sports, it blows the numbers just completely out of the water,” Regan said.

“It’s passive. You don’t have to pay for heat. It certainly takes maintenance money and construction, but there’s a demand for it and it’s multi-generational. When you compare the costs of trails against other recreational facilities, there’s no comparison.”

Regan said while there’s little you can do about those few who choose to be blatantly disrespectful, he believes if people realized the issues their dog’s waste can cause they would likely be more vigilant.

He points to well-intentioned people who deposit their full dog bags on the sides of a trail because they plan to pick it up afterwards but sometimes forget, take a different route out, or the filled bag gets moved or knocked over.

A sign on the Sackville Greenway Trail. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

“It’s really about respect. Respect for you, respect for me, respect for the community,” Regan said. “I have care and control of my animal, including waste removal, not waste relocation.”

Regan said it’s also important to recognize that while there is a small percentage wreaking havoc by refusing to pick up after their pets tossing their bagged dog waste into the woods, there are just as many who clean up after those people.

He calls them “the mystery cleaners.”

They often call to tell him about the large amount of droppings they’ve found and cleaned along the trail. Others call to say they’ve removed and properly disposed of multiple dog waste bags thrown on the ground or hanging from trees when they’re on their own walks.

“These people are wonderful, and we are so grateful for them, but why should other people pick up after other people,” Regan said.

“It’s because people are good and they want to maintain the trail themselves. But they shouldn’t have to do that.”

Pet peeve

In addition to mystery cleaners, volunteers are also regularly present cleaning messes on many local trails.

Earlier this year, a Cole Harbour Parks and Trails Association (CHPTA) trail steward badly sprained an ankle while trying to remove a dog poop-filled bag hanging from a tree branch.

“We’re constantly picking up bags and we’re constantly picking up actual feces themselves,” Michael McFadden, CHPTA chairperson, said in an interview.

He also echoes Regan’s observation about the do-gooders who go out of their way to pick up dog doo belonging to the dogs of complete strangers.

“There’s a large proportion of people that behave themselves,” McFadden said.

The association oversees three trails — the Salt Marsh Trail, the Shearwater Flyer, and Heritage Park. They also monitor the Forest Hills and Bissett trails for HRM. McFadden said they’ve noted an increase in the amount of dog waste being left behind.

“It’s as much a function of the fact that so many more people are getting out on the trails as anything,” he said.

“I’m trying to motivate a rather small group of very diligent volunteers to continue working and do this stuff and they turn around and they say, we just cleaned up those ditches last week and quite literally within hours, there’s a bunch more crap and corruption there.”

One of several dog poop bags found discarded trailside at Sackville Lakes Provincial Park. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

McFadden describes HRM’s dog waste composting project as a good initiative, adding that he doesn’t envy the workers who will have to sort through and separate the poop from the bags.

“I can see initially when they do it there will be the newness factor and there will be a big uptake right at the beginning,” he said. “It’ll be like ‘Oh yeah, I can put it in there.’ It’s novel.”

The CHPTA sets up and regularly resupplies an impressive number of dog poop bag dispensers throughout their trail system.

Between 2010 up until March 31 of this year, the association has distributed 565,800 plastic dog waste bags at an average cost of five cents per bag — or 142 bags per day at a cost of $7.44 per day — seven days a week, 365 days a year.

McFadden described the dog doo issue as a “constant problem,” noting that volunteer trail stewards regularly pack dog bags while on patrol to pick up discarded dog droppings. They also carry out full bags left behind by dog owners.

“I don’t own a dog but I think I’ve picked up about 2,000 dog bags since the beginning of the year, which is small compared to a number of others,” McFadden said.

“A fair number of people are using our garbage cans…but we’ve still got lots of these bags hanging in trees on the sides of the trail because people toss them and they don’t get down to ground level.”

McFadden said with literally hundreds of dogs visiting the park with their owners on any given day, the amount of dog waste would quickly become a health hazard if the majority of owners didn’t pick up after their own dogs and the dogs of strangers.

‘That’s what you’re paid for’

He points to a 2005 study prepared by Dalhousie University masters students for the Eastern Shore Clam Fishery Association and Dalhousie University’s School of Planning.

Titled ‘Planning against shellfish closures: A Pollution Reduction Strategy for Cole Harbour,’ it noted that recreational trail users “should be aware” that dog feces are a major source of pollution in Cole Harbour.

Cover page from the 2005 study.

The report found that in a 30 square km watershed, just two to three days worth of dog droppings from 100 dogs was “enough to close a small coastal bay to shellfish harvesting.”

The report also highlighted that fecal coliform contamination from human and animal waste is the primary reason for shellfish closures in Nova Scotia.

“Just a single gram of dog feces contains an average of 23 million fecal coliform bacteria,” the report stated.

“Dog feces have nearly double the concentration of fecal coliform compared to human feces.”

The authors speculated at the time that dog waste was “potentially contaminating” the clam beds of Cole Harbour. This influx was from dogs whose owners lived near Cole Harbour or Little Salmon River, and from the thousands of people accessing the Salt Marsh Trail every year, many with dogs.

“Often these dog owners leave feces on the ground where they are washed into the Harbour by rainwater,” the report stated.

“The Harbour then becomes contaminated because of the high level of fecal coliform in those dog feces.”

McFadden — a volunteer — shares tales of politely asking people to pick up after their dogs only to be met with comments like “Well that’s what you’re paid for.”

While more education, occasional awareness blitzes, trail sweeps, and enforcement is required, he doesn’t believe fines are the only way to go. He wonders if providing the option to volunteer to pick up garbage and poop might also be a deterrent.

“In the summertime when the sun is shining and it’s nice and warm out, those garbage bags are filled with an amazing amount of dog poop. They weigh heavy,” he said.

“We actually slit the bottom of the main garbage bag so that it drains out a bit so that’s why the grass is always greener around our garbage cans. But that also means that the smell comes out really nice and strong.”

McFadden said people also need to become more comfortable politely pointing out when someone else isn’t taking the time to scoop the poop. He said this is especially effective when other people are around, as other trail users will back you up and not the perpetrator.

Whenever he provides an explanation about why it’s important for owners to pick up dog waste, he emphasizes the large number of dogs using the trails and the hazards for the surrounding water.

“The ground here is our drumlins and tends to be high clay, so most of the stuff that falls on the surface will make its way into the stream down at the bottom of the hill. That stream feeds into the Cole Harbour salt marsh,” McFadden said.

“In the Cole Harbour salt marsh is clams which you might end up eating at any one of the restaurants downtown because they quite often deal with the small clammers rather than the big companies.”

McFadden said it takes 95% of people who are respectful to clean up after the 5% who aren’t. As summer rolls around and even more people use parks and trails in HRM and beyond, he urges people to be respectful.

“It is your right to enjoy nature. It is your right to have clean, clear water to drink…and it’s your right to be able to go along on a trail and enjoy nature,” he said.

“But it is also your responsibility that if your dog poops, you make sure you have a bag, you pick it up and you properly dispose of it…If we get one or two people  reading this saying ‘Oh damn that’s me and I better be better about it,’ hey, we’re ahead of the game.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Would love to replicate those New Zealand signs that Mr. Regan saw…at least people might notice them.

  2. Thanks for posting this. Like many commenters I have also noticed a lot of dog poo bags lying everywhere in the provincial park around the corner, and a lot of litter, too. If I see fresh litter (the ever-present Tim Horton’s cup) I will usually take a piece of two out with me. Thanks to all the volunteers highlighted in this article, and those who weren’t, who are cleaning up our trails.

  3. When I moved here a dozen years ago, I was appalled at the number of parks and trails with bags of dog poop hanging from trees or disposed on the side of the path. This has been a problem for years and the issue has been that there were no garbage cans then ( and they still are rare now in many places). But with the COVID epidemic, the poop bag issue is no longer confined to parks or trails. It has moved onto residential streets. And HRM’s waste problem is not confined to dog poop. HRM has a major littering and waste disposal problem. A walk down any well travelled or dense street, such as Brunswick Street, will have one finding condoms, potato chip bags, coffee cups, and litter of all sorts. There are 3 public waste receptacles on Brunswick Street. The Barrington Street multi-use path has no waste cans and that whole path and the adjacent area is filled with human littler, including discarded tents, needles, toiletries and a few bags of dog poop , Vacant lots, even those owned by the Crown, are covered with litter. In many areas of HRM, vacant lots serve as de facto parks where people walk their dogs, let their kids run and just get out for some sunshine or shade, As a matter of public health, HRM needs to have many more waste receptacles on public streets ( including residential streets) where people are walking or cycling. Wherever there is public seating, there should also be waste receptacles.

  4. If the 95% all carried extra bags and scooped after the poopers who won’t, that’d solve most of the problem. I do it fairly regularly, in part because I know I’ve accidentally missed one from our dog on rare occasions. It’s not hard to pick up a little extra. I figure some of the ones left behind are accidental. But it’s discouraging that some figure it’s no problem to leave them or toss them into tree branches etc.

    1. Thank you for this Brian! I would love if there was some signage at trailheads that educated dog owners about the damage that dog poop does to the environment (I truly believe a lot of people don’t know and think it’s “natural”…) – and if there was already a sign, it would be a perfect place to write:
      “Pssst, dog owners: see some poop that’s not your dog’s? Would you consider picking it up anyhow? Remember that you’ve probably missed some poop from your dog on occasion too!”

      It would be great to help promote more of a a culture of reciprocity around poop scooping 🙂

  5. My favorite hiking trail near HRM has a major dog problem. In addition to the bags of shit people “forget” to pick back up on their way out, people let their dogs off leash and most of the dogs don’t behave themselves adequately. I’m pretty sure I would go to jail if I approached people and stuck my nose into their crotch and licked their hands without their permission.

    1. Not a laughing matter, but your comment immediately brought this to mind:


      Also, those are ridiculously low registration figures for dogs, city-wide. Is there any relatively reliable estimate as to actual dog population in HRM? Now I feel like a sucker for actually registering my dogs…

      1. Yes I was blown away by that number. I feel like there are 9000 dogs just in my neighbourhood!!

  6. I carry a small canvas bag when I walk my dogs. One compartment contains folded paper towels and the second one is for dog poop that I need to clean up on the way. Once I return home the poop/paper towel combo is flushed and the carry bag is wiped out with dilute javex and water solution. I’ve been doing this for years.

    Cindy Beaton