Monday, October 03, 2005

Garbage Wars

Earlier this week I awoke from a terrible nightmare. I dreamt that it was 1988 again, and the provincial government had given the GTA (i.e. Toronto, Peel, York and Durham), the right to expropriate land for its garbage. People were desperately trying to save wetlands, family farms and greenbelt areas from being turned into garbage dumps, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. It was horrible.

The problem is, I was not dreaming. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment is currently considering a report that would allow GTA municipalities the right to dump their waste in Ontario landfills that are currently off-limits. The report, which was commissioned by Toronto and neighboring municipalities, also recommends re-examining the possibility of re-opening closed landfills like the Keele Valley dump in York Region. The report has been kept secret since February because of the anticipated backlash from potential host communities.

Supposedly, these re-opened and re-expropriated landfills will only provide interim waste management. Most municipalities are working on long-terms plans to manage their garbage. However, given the current environmental assessment rules, it will be at least 2012 before any of those plans is translated into concrete options.

The situation moved from serious to critical last week when in a 105 to 3 decision, Michigan's House of Representatives approved legislation that would allow the state to ban the GTA's garbage with only 90 days notice. While the federal House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate need to pass legislation that would empower states to manage their own garbage, the clock is ticking.

For the city of Toronto, which only has a two-day holding capacity, this is a huge problem. Unfortunately, this is even a bigger problem for the environment within dumping distance of the GTA.

The tragedy in all this is that this could have been prevented. Seventeen years ago, what was then Metropolitan Toronto began the search for new landfill capacity. Concerned that it was running out of time and options, Metro Council adopted Report No. 11 of The Works Committee that outlined the city's process for siting an interim landfill. Of primary consideration was the recommendation, "to apply for an order under section 29(a) of the Environmental Assessment Act which would exempt the acquisition, expropriation, excavation, construction, operation and retirement of the proposed landfill site and ancillary facilities from the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act."

What made the city's desire to exempt itself from any environmental assessment so heinous was that the city also planned to evoke the provincial Metropolitan Toronto Act that gave it the power to expropriate lands around the province to accommodate its needs. Locally citizenry around proposed dumpsites revolted. What followed was seventeen years of a perverse game of "dueling dumps" including the on-again, off-again Adams Mine.

It's now seventeen years later, and we are no closer to a solution. The problem is that we can't seem to understand the problem. Our attitude toward waste is both systemic and endemic. Our western civilization is built on the fundamental idea of the disposability of things. As quickly as we can expand recycling programs to free up landfill space, we introduce new streams of garbage to take its place. Consider how quickly we embraced the newest generation of single-use disposable products. In only a few years consumers have made this a billion dollar industry. If we are ever truly going to manage our waste, then as a society we have to embrace the 3Rs hierarchy that puts reduction and reuse before recycling.

Procrastination has its price. The minute that the very first bag of garbage hits the streets of Toronto and has no place else to go, then all gloves are off. Garbage ceases to be a perceived environmental problem and instead becomes a very real and present danger to public health. Environmental planning and assessments will fly out the window and 750,000 tonnes of Toronto's garbage (along with an additional 250,000 from other GTA municipalities) will be spread far and wide across the southern Ontario landscape, regardless of whether or not the environment is threatened.

By making garbage somebody else's problem, we have done this. Let he who has not made any garbage throw the first bag of trash.


The Grassroots Recycling Network


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