Like other jurisdictions, the Province of Alberta finds itself in need of a long-term waste policy framework. To this end, Alberta Environment is in the process of developing long-term waste strategies to deal with industrial waste, municipal solid waste as well as hazardous waste. As part of this process, a Municipal Solid Waste Action Plan (MSWAP) is being prepared and should be released sometime in 2004. The MSWAP is being developed through stakeholder consultation, and will detail the specific actions the province will undertake to reduce the quantity of waste being deposited in Alberta landfills. It’ll include an assessment of the potential for newer or alternative waste diversion policies, potentially including restrictions on non-hazardous waste importation or the use of landfill prohibitions.
As part of the process of creating the MSWAP, Alberta Environment commissioned some discussion documents. One paper is entitled “The Feasibility of Landfill Prohibitions as a Regulatory Tool.” The paper was released June 1, 2004 with a request that submissions including comments be provided to the ministry by the end of July.
Pressures on Alberta landfill capacity
The landfill prohibitions discussion paper provides an interesting context to the discussion of waste in Alberta. Per capita waste disposal in Alberta was over one tonne per year as recently as 1991 and dropped fairly dramatically (25 per cent) to approximately 750 kg per capita in 1995. Since that time there has been some variability but the most recent year, 2002, saw a similar level of per capita waste disposal in the province.
While the current state of affairs is an improvement over the situation in the early 1990s, projected population and economic growth will increase pressure on the waste management sector even with a modest decrease in the amount of per capita waste directed to landfill.
The discussion paper provides a picture of a province that is, in comparison to some other Canadian jurisdictions, rich in landfill capacity. While there are approximately 700 landfills operating in Alberta currently, those which were providing information to Alberta Environment in 2002 (on a voluntary basis) indicated a median reported life expectancy of 36 years, with a range from two to 100 years. These landfills serve 83 per cent of Alberta’s population. While a 36 year planning horizon for landfill is enviable in many places, Alberta Environment recognizes that it will be extremely difficult to site new landfills in the future. The report notes that this is particularly the case given the accelerated growth of municipal boundaries and the prevalence of NIMBY attitudes.
Waste diversion initiatives in Alberta are not yet adequate to meet required diversion targets. The province has introduced waste recovery stewardship programs for beverage containers, used-oil products, scrap tires and, most recently, electronic wastes (See Editorial, pg. 4.). The landfill prohibitions discussion paper credits these collective efforts with reducing per capita waste landfill by 28 per cent since 1988. How much of this is curbside recycling and other programs is unclear, because the paper also states that stewardship programs specifically accounted for an estimated diversion of 12 kg of waste per capita annually.
In any case, the plateau of waste generation at approximately 750 kg per capita is a concern given the target of 500 kg per capita set by Alberta Environment.
With that context in mind, the report then discusses landfill prohibitions as a waste diversion tool. The report considers the use of mandatory recycling ordinances (MROs) as a related technique that would indirectly restrict the disposal of certain materials into landfills through recycling, composting or diversion for energy creation. The report concedes that landfill prohibitions and MROs will not achieve 100 per cent diversion.
The discussion paper sets out four potential materials that were discussed in previous stakeholder consultations. They are: leaf and yard waste, old corrugated cardboard, fluorescent light tubes, and gypsum wallboard. While it’s unclear why other materials have not been considered, excluding fluorescent light tubes, these materials account for approximately 31 per cent of Alberta’s solid waste stream according to the report. As such, significant diversion efforts could result in a dramatic reduction of material going to landfills. Interestingly, the report notes that waste managers are not in favour of municipalities funding the implementation of diversion initiatives and, moreover, that stable funding needs to be put in place for these programs. The report also acknowledges that it may be necessary to exempt rural municipalities due to distance from markets and issues related to enforcement of the prohibitions.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the Alberta Environment endeavour is that it represents an effort to deal with waste management issues on a long-term planning horizon. Other parts of Canada have been less lucky and are only now waking up to the fact that landfill capacity, diversion and related regulatory matters such as the environmental assessment process are critical components of any jurisdiction’s infrastructure. Hopefully the Alberta policy framework leads to continuing efforts and not stalled situations that have plagued many other parts of the country.
Adam Chamberlain is a certified specialist in environmental law with Aird & Berlis in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Adam at email@example.com