Solid Waste & Recycling


Toronto's Big Diversion Plan

The fact that Toronto ships its residential garbage for disposal in Michigan emerged as a top-of-mind environmental issue in the city's recent municipal election. Every political candidate mouthed vag...

The fact that Toronto ships its residential garbage for disposal in Michigan emerged as a top-of-mind environmental issue in the city’s recent municipal election. Every political candidate mouthed vagaries about support for recycling, but few understand that city staff have set in motion an aggressive scheme that which aims to divert 60 per cent of Toronto’s garbage from landfill by 2006 and 100 per cent by 2010.

If the city accomplishes the latter goal, it will be the first to do so in North America. Toronto’s strategy should be of interest to waste management professionals across Canada, and also would-be politicians.

Mine your own business

Be it the proposed Adam’s Mine landfill in Kirkland Lake or megadumps ringed around the city (as proposed by NDP’s Ruth Grier Interim Waste Authority) or various incineration schemes, Toronto and Ontario politicians have played political football with the so-called “garbage problem” for decades, but have yet to do much about it.

That’s changing quickly.

Toronto currently ships its garbage under a five-year contract (signed in 2000) to the Carleton Farms Landfill in Michigan operated by waste giant Republic Services. Trucking firm Wilson Logistics performs the long-distance hauling. Toronto pays $52 per tonne for this long-distance hauling and landfilling. The city collects the material at curbside and transfers it, for a total system cost including disposal at between $125 and $127 per tonne.

In 2003, Toronto will generate about 1.15 million tonnes of residential garbage, plus another 150,000 tonnes of watery sewage treatment plant waste, requiring disposal in Michigan. (Some small commercial and institutional garbage the city collects and other waste received at transfer stations is excluded from these numbers.)

The city is under pressure to deal with its waste at home. Michigan Governor Jennifer Grandolm — originally from British Columbia — has waged a campaign to stop Toronto trash imports. The state has a “Trash-O-Meter” at the border that, like a big clock, records the millions of tonnes of garbage that arrive from Ontario. Strategies to ban the odorous import have included inspection of garbage loads in search of contamination or other excuses to reject Toronto waste. Various state bills are working their way through senate review to make it easier to reject Toronto garbage. These include landfill bans on beverage containers (Michigan is a bottle-bill state) and yard waste. One bill seeks to give state environment officials the power to restrict out-of-state waste imports in emergency situations. The state is also considering placing a surcharge on every tonne of garbage landfilled. Because it would apply to both domestic and foreign garbage, it could potentially survive a legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, what will the city do?

Most Toronto residents don’t realize that the proposal to build a mega-landfill in the spent Adam’s Mine quarry near Kirkland Lake, Ontario is still on the table. A new consortium owns the project, and longtime advocate Gordon McGuinty reminds people that the project actually passed its environmental assessment. Toronto was going to send its garbage there until Mayor Mel Lastman lost his nerve during the last election. When the controversial plan threatened to sink the re-election hopes of many of his supporters on city council, His Worship killed the deal by insisting on unreasonable contract amendments at the last minute. (The offending clause required that Canadian Waste Services and its partners assume any and all liability for futures problems or regulatory changes.)

Mr. Lastman wasn’t the first person to pull back from the Adam’s Mine. Alan Tonks, the former Metro Toronto Chair and once the biggest proponent of the Adam’s Mine, voted against the proposal several years ago. At the time, Toronto had an option to buy the site and develop a landfill itself as a commercial venture. Since the project has a province-wide license, the project could have earned the city a fortune, as did its recently-closed Keele Valley landfill in nearby Vaughan.

In any case, if the Michigan option disappears the Adam’s Mine might be revived.

The first 60 per cent

But the city has charted a different path. Toronto plans to divert 60 per cent of its garbage from landfill by 2006 and 100 per cent by 2010 through aggressive recycling and composting strategies. A three-stream system has been successfully demonstrated in Etobicoke. It uses special rolling carts from Norseman Plastics for organics set-out. The system will be expanded to Scarborough next year and to all 500,000 single-family homes in Toronto by the fall of 2005. Strategies to increase diversion include:

Curbside recycling a wider range of materials through mandatory use of the blue box and grey box (fibre) program;

Source separating organics (food, garden and wet paper waste, diapers) by all single family households in the Greater Toronto Area by 2006, as well as by multi-family households and apartment dwellers; and

Implementing bag limits, mandatory recycling and variable-rate pricing programs designed to spur recycling and composting.

Reducing garbage collection service to once every two weeks to encourage recycling and composting; and

Using new and emerging technologies to handle the residual waste stream (approximately 40 percent) after recycling and composting have been maximized.

Toronto is on track to exceed its 30 per cent diversion target for 2003. It has diverted 150,000 tonnes of blue and grey box materials, 60,000 tonnes of leaf and yard waste, 40,000 tonnes of green bin material, and miscellaneous amounts via backyard composting, drop-off centres and depots, etc.

According to Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning at the city’s Solid Waste Management Services department, waste diversion costs a bit more than disposal.

“If you look at our reporting under the Municipal Performance Measurement Program, diversion activities cost about $133 per tonne,” he says, adding that greater levels of organics processing will increase costs in the future.

He adds, “It’s difficult right now to know precise final system costs because of variables such as co-collection of organics and waste, or recyclables and waste, in special vehicles.”

The remaining 40 per cent

Since about half of residential garbage is organics and the blue box is well established in Toronto, initial 60 per cent diversion goal seems attainable. But there’s debate about what to do with the remaining 40 per cent. The city is following a special process to choose one or more “new and emerging technologies” for this waste residue. City staff received 51 proposals in response to its Request for Expressions of Interest.

In October, mayoral candidate John Tory attracted some negative attention during the campaign when he mentioned that he would look at any and all solutions for garbage, including incineration. Although his comments were denounced as politically incorrect, the provinces environmental assessment process in fact requires that all options be considered, including thermal treatment. And indeed the new and emerging technologies exercise has attracted many thermal technologies. Although Toronto’s contract with Republic Services specifically excludes “incineration” more novel high-tech options such as waste gasification are allowed. (Gasification treats dangerous primary-stage incineration gases in an afterburner.)

The search for and approval of any thermal treatment process will likely be highly controversial. Last year a brouhaha erupted over behind-the-scenes discussions at a committee charged to look at solutions for that final “40 per cent.” Former city councilor Betty Disero, who had previously chaired the Works Committee, jumped to the private sector to represent a gasification technology company. She promoted a gasification plant for the Toronto port lands and it appeared from local media reports that staff were considering how such a project might be moved forward without having to undergo an e

nvironmental assessment. When this story made headlines, committee chair Brad Duguid backpedaled quickly. Councilor Sandra Bussins and residents of the city’s Beaches riding were outraged, since they only recently managed to shut down an unpopular sewage sludge incinerator upwind at Ashbridge’s Bay. The whole episode underscored people’s antipathy to incineration, even if it’s the high-tech variety.

Even if the city overcomes public resistance to thermal technologies, it’s going to face a challenge with high-rises. A three-stream collection system is fairly easy to implement in areas like Etobicoke and Scarborough where most people reside in single-family detached houses, semis or townhouses. But in downtown Toronto about half the population lives in high-rises (apartments, condos) and other multi-family dwellings where a three-stream set out is difficult. The city has already forced owners of such buildings to provide blue-box style recycling, which usually occurs in oversize bins on the ground floor. But recovering organics will be much more difficult.

It’s unlikely people will ever be allowed to place compost bins on their balconies. A better idea comes from certain American cities that legally require high-rise owners to install under-the-sink “garborators” that send shredded kitchen scraps to the local municipal sewage treatment plant. This is fine (assuming the plant can handle it) unless the plant sends its dewatered “sludge” by truck to landfill, in which case the organics are simply completing the first leg of their journey by underground pipe instead of street-level truck. The new Liberal provincial government has vowed to end the controversial land application of untreated sewage sludge, so the garborator option may make even less sense.

It will be interesting in the years ahead to see whether or not Toronto hits its aggressive diversion targets in 2006 and 2010. Even if it misses, it will be interesting to follow the attempt and we’ll report the progress regularly in the pages of this magazine.

Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. For further information, e-mail

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