The Unpredictable Giant
The new USA President’s “American First” policy, commitment to re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), promise to reduce regulations (especially ones related to the environment), and pledge to provide faster “yes” or “no” answers on development, has serious potential to turn the waste management industry in Canada upside down.
There is a level of predictability in the early days of the new US president in that one could argue he is keeping his campaign promises. On the other hand, the executive orders that have been signed have come as a shock to those most impacted by them. I see potential changes in US policy that could serious impact waste management in Canada.
Scenario One: Ban on Waste Imports in the US
One concern some Canadian industries and municipalities should have is that of an executive order being issued by the US president banning the imports of Canadian waste into America for any number of reasons may seem nonsensical to a waste industry professional—protecting American jobs, as a bargaining chip over some other trade issue, or for national security. If not an outright ban, the US presidential interference could take the form of a tariff on all waste coming into the US from Canada.
At this point, the reason for the US suddenly closing the border to imports of Canadian waste really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that companies and municipalities that rely on US waste management facilities have contingency plans in place if such a ban does occur.
In my view, the thousands of industries and several municipalities that ship waste to the US will need both the federal and provincial government to potentially enact emergency measures to handle the sudden crisis.
In Ontario alone, approximately 4 million tonnes of solid non-hazardous waste are shipped annually to the US for treatment and/or disposal. The vast majority of this waste is from the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors. For hazardous waste shipments, the annual export number is 519,000 tonnes.
More than one research paper has concluded that the capacity to manage waste in some provinces, especially Ontario, is woefully inadequate and that landfill capacity is in rapid decline. The amount of landfill capacity available in Ontario is less than the disposal capacity required for IC&I and CRD waste generated by Ontario sources per some research reports. This is an weakness that a business-savvy, “American First” president might exploit.
In the short term, Canada should be able to handle a US landfill ban. For example, in Ontario there is currently a remaining landfill capacity in the province of 127 million tonnes. The challenge will come when trying to add extra waste management/disposal capacity. The timeline for environmental permitting of a new landfill or energy-from-waste facility in the province is typically three or more years.
Scenario Two: US Waste Management Advantages
The vision of the new US president, backed by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, is less red tape and faster approvals for business. One potential outcome of the application of this vision is an increase in waste management capacity along in States bordering Canada as a way to create more jobs for American workers. The result could potentially mean a shrivelling of waste-to-resource developments in Canada as clean-tech and entrepreneurial waste management companies set up shop along the border and reap the benefits of less regulation and faster approvals.
The Good and The Bad
Whether the US bans waste from Canada, slaps a tariff on it, or creates a favourable business environment that results the growth of waste management industry in the US at the expense of Canadian competitors, it is still an unknown at this juncture. What seems to be clearly known is that unpredictable and sometimes questionable policy decision-making will be occurring in the foreseeable future from the US White House.
If the US bans imports of waste from Canada, this is arguably good news for Canadian environmental activists and the Canadian waste management industry in the long run. Canada will be forced to deal with it once waste and greater diversion and more final disposal capacity (i.e., EFW facilities and/ or landfills) will be needed on this side of the border.
If the “American First” policy results in a push to expand the US waste management industry and create an environment where export of waste from Canada to the US is cheaper, it is a benefit to the IC&I sector and municipalities that export waste to the US.
The need for contingency planning and strategy development is required by all waste industry professionals, all entities that currently export waste to the US, and all levels of government in Canada. Perhaps it is time for Canadian industries and government have a clear strategy for promoting local solutions to local problems (i.e., “Canadian First”) with respect waste management policies. It may be needed to counteract potentially damaging rules that may be forthcoming south of the border.