Sunday, October 01, 2006

Garbage Wars!

Toronto's bid to purchase the Green Lane landfill near London has pushed the great garbage debate to a new level of hysteria. London Councillor Susan Eagle is calling for tollbooths to be installed on area roads to stop the trash trucks from invading her neighborhood. London Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best has asked the province for a provincial strategy on waste management and protection for potential hosts sites.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Councillor Jane Pitfield, who is chasing David Miller for the mayor's chair, is promoting incineration as a solution to the city's garbage woes. Miller, who so far is against incineration, is defending the Green Lane purchase as a solution to Toronto's 20-year quest to find a place to dump its garbage.

With all due respect to the mayor and his predecessors, if they haven't found a solution in twenty years, maybe it's time to re-think the process. I may be stating the obvious here, but after two decades of terrorizing its neighbours, perhaps it's time somebody pointed out that Toronto might just be looking in the wrong direction.

Let's put some perspective on this. In the same time that it took to fight World War I and II - twice - Toronto is still fighting with its neighbours over garbage. As any community that has found itself on Toronto's potential dump list will testify, fighting Canada's largest urban bully is a lot like fighting a war. Battle plans are drawn, activists are exhausted, and local coffers are drained rallying a defense. In the end, Toronto is still looking to dump its trash anywhere but home.

There are alternatives, and I'm not talking incineration, either. Contrary to public perception, burning garbage isn't a cheap way to generate electricity; it's a very expensive way to minimize the amount of garbage that still has to be disposed of. Incinerators still require landfills, and toxic ones at that, to house the remaining ash (typically 20 percent by weight and 10 percent by volume). They also compete with beneficial recycling programs for paper and plastics, which are a necessary part of the fuel mix. Both are critical for maximizing burning temperatures and minimizing stack emissions.

The NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor should also beware. Any community that opts for an incinerator will likely find itself importing garbage from other communities to help keep the home fires burning, so to speak.

So burning isn't the answer. Neither is dumping on your neighbors. Ultimately, the solution is to not make the stuff in the first place. But until we have a major ideological shift in our values and recognize that we are literally wasting our resource base, we need an interim solution.

That solution is to embrace our waste as a resource and treat it accordingly. It can be done, very successfully. Edmonton started looking for a new landfill site just about the same time that Toronto did back in the 1980s. Much like Toronto, Edmonton is surrounded by numerous communities that were unwilling to play host to the city's garbage. But instead of trying to push it on them anyway, Edmonton saw its failure to find an acceptable landfill as an opportunity to re-examine how they were doing things.

In 1994 its integrated waste management system was approved with a goal of "developing a system that was equitable for all residents, regardless of income or social status, instill public awareness of the long-term benefits of reducing waste generation and of reusing and recycling waste, and build up the Province of Alberta's environmental industry and knowledge base by creating an unparalleled environment for applied research and learning." Oh, and achieve a 70 percent waste diversion rate.

"We're not quite there yet," said Connie Boyce, Director of Strategic Planning and Community Relations. "We are currently diverting 15 percent through recycling and 35 to 45 percent is diverting through our central composting facility." That's still an impressive 50 to 60 percent diversion rate, which coincidentally has been Ontario's long-term and thus far unattainable goal for years. For Edmonton, this is just a starting point.

"Our long term goal is 95 percent diversion," said Boyce. City engineers are currently looking at gasification to convert a residual waste into a synthetic gas that can be burned for energy. It's important to note that gasification is not incineration.

Edmonton isn't alone. Halifax and Prince Edward Island also have remarkably progressive, successful waste management strategies. (But more about that in future columns.) The question is, if they can do it, why can't Toronto? If I were a Toronto resident, that's the question I'd be asking political hopefuls if they came knocking at my door.


Seeing is believing. Check out Edmonton's Waste Management System.


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