Michigan politicians recently introduced a bill that would ban haulers from importing garbage generated outside of the state. In response, though the bill likely won’t pass, on February 18 Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell told the City of Toronto that it must develop a “Plan B” alternative strategy for the disposal of its municipal waste, currently trucked to Republic Waste’s Carleton Farms landfill in Michigan. The city (in conjunction with the regions of Peel and York) has shipped waste there since 1998, but the volume rose dramatically to more than one million tonnes per year after the recent closure of the city’s large Keele Valley landfill.
The minister’s statement was just one punch in a policy donnybrook that has bloodied noses but so far settled nothing. Arguments over Toronto trash have for years been long on rhetoric and short on practical solutions, but even by those standards the recent brouhaha has been shrill.
Newspapers reported that Michigan refused entry of a truck from Peel Region after blood was found dripping from medical waste. This odd occurrence played into the hands of a coalition of 21 environmental and civic groups working on a “Don’t Trash Michigan” initiative. The coalition knows that NAFTA and U.S. interstate commerce laws protect the free flow of waste as a commodity, and that the proposed waste import ban is likely doomed. So it’s pushing for an economic disincentive in the form of a landfill burial fee. Other Great Lake states already charge fees that range from $1.27 to $3.10 a tonne. On February 10 the coalition staged a rally at the Ambassador Bridge to decry the state’s so-called “trash can” image.
Michigan Governor Jennifer Granhom was born in British Columbia, which might explain some of her environmental zeal. She is said to be on a mission to end waste import within two years, if not sooner. We’re not sure why. Landfill tip fees provide revenues and people around the landfill pay no property tax. Toronto will pay approximately $42-million over the next three years to dispose its waste in Michigan. Methane from the landfill provides energy for 6,000 local residences. Furthermore, it’s not as if Toronto’s banned waste wouldn’t be replaced by garbage from somewhere else. Moreover, critics point out that Michigan ships thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste to treatment and disposal sites in Ontario each year, so the obsession with solid waste appears hypocritical.
In any case, a future ban on waste export would have serious repercussions for other Ontario municipalities desperate to preserve their landfill airspace.
Toronto’s garbage is a hot button issue among politicians from towns and cites along the Highway 401 trucking corridor, especially Windsor and London. It’s estimated that 50,000 truck trips per year haul Toronto and area waste to Michigan, in addition to a further 31,000 trips hauling private sector IC&I waste. Critics say that this is still only about one per cent of all traffic on the busy highway. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the waste exports are unpopular. The federal government is rumored to be cooking up a policy that will make waste export more difficult — something Toronto should look into quickly.
Picking up on the concern, Bill Enouy, mayor for the northern Ontario Town of Kirkland Lake, released a report in February pointing out the advantages of the rail haul option that, among other things, would reduce truck traffic. People forget that the Adam’s Mine near Kirkland Lake is a licensed waste disposal facility and that Toronto agreed to send its waste there a few years ago. The reason this didn’t happen was that Canadian Waste Services baulked at a last minute stipulation from the city that the company accept any and all future, unpredictable liabilities; this could include a future government slapping a tax on garbage or some other unknown factor. CWS understandably walked away but the Adam’s Mine proponents haven’t given up and are actively dangling their facility as the optimal “Plan B” for Toronto.
Another option touted by Toronto officials is the concept, developed by former councilor and waste committee chair Betty Disero, that virtually all the city’s garbage can be diverted through recycling, composting and other techniques in the near future. One official recently told this magazine that the city’s waste diversion efforts will reduce the number of tractor-trailers hauling Toronto waste from 125 per day in 2003 to approximately 54 in 2006, and none by 2010.
This strikes us as terribly optimistic. A consultant who has provided services to the city in the past spoke to us recently on condition of anonymity and stated that it was a pipe dream to imagine the fast-growing city diverting anything above about 56 per cent in light of proven recycling rates, limited markets for city compost (that is unlikely to pass new stringent guidelines) and other factors.
On April 1st the Globe & Mail reported that Toronto’s new works committee chair Brad Duguid has quietly been advocating an incineration or gasification option, and a leaked memo suggests he’d like to avoid submitting the project to an environmental assessment. Any such plan will be highly controversial and likely stuck in process for years. So, seeing past the alarmist headlines it looks like the bulk of Toronto’s refuse will be heading to a hole in the ground for a long time to come. If Plan A is landfill, so is Plan B, either in Michigan or Northern Ontario. Take your pick.
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org