Oh, how I wish I had run for mayor. Trouble is I’m a single issue candidate. My issue: waste.
The solution to our waste-disposal problem is not complicated, though you’d never know that if you spend any time at City Hall. In one room, yet another citizens’ committee is debating what to do with our garbage; in the council chamber just a few weeks ago, council approved a plan that could see three new incinerators built in the city. Meanwhile we’re shipping our trash to Michigan, hoping the government there doesn’t get fed up with being our dumping ground. It needn’t be so complicated.
As a former business executive who decided to use his evil powers for good, I’ve done nothing for the past two and a half years but study the challenge of residential solid-waste management, and I’ve concluded that it’s not that tough, especially because most people want to do more.
Really, I’m not kidding: it’s simple. We just have to recycle everything possible and set out organic material for collection and composting. The balance (only 13 per cent by weight), made up of a TV or a couch or some old bricks, needs to be dropped off at conveniently located depots. After that we’d be left with about 5 per cent true “residual waste.”
These ideas are nothing new. They can be found in reports, studies and other bureaucratic whatnots dating back decades that are gathering dust on City Hall shelves. The most recent of these reports, Taskforce 2010, began with the promise that “all our waste will be recycled, reused or composted.” That was issued in 2001. We just need to do it.
Instead, the city is looking for companies interested in burning 40 per cent of our waste. It astounds me to think that the politicians of this city honestly believe that substituting “advanced thermal technology” (the latest and greatest way to burn waste) for landfills is a solution to the waste crisis. In either case, the destruction of resources and, more importantly, the energy to produce them is unsustainable.
Nearly half of the energy we consume and, by extension, the greenhouse gases we produce, are used to extract, transport, manufacture and distribute the stuff we buy. The problem is we bury or burn almost all of that stuff within six months. This is nuts.
The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy. Despite what scores of consultants will advise (thereby ensuring themselves continued employment while every community reinvents its own slightly wobbly wheel), we can’t just install a magic piece of technology to make our garbage vanish. We’ve got to work together.
Forty-five per cent of our waste is composed of recyclables, 42 per cent is organic, and the remaining 13 per cent is what I call the Last Six: electronics, furniture, textiles, household items, building materials and hazardous waste.
They need to be separated by consumers and dealt with responsibly. People need to stop the neurotic compulsion to get waste out of their homes instantly. There’s no need to insist that these items be rushed to the curb as if they were hexed. The fact is a banana, a can of pop and a television were all purchased and consumed as separate items. We need to ask people to direct these discards into separate containers. No big deal.
Recycle: Recycling is a good first step, but we fail to recycle almost half of allowable material. By my very conservative estimate, we bury or burn $10 million worth of newspaper every year (while we truck virgin timber from clear-cut forests) and $15 million worth of pop cans. Why not spend money to promote recycling? Every single report I’ve read or speaker I’ve heard says how important education and advertising are. They’re right. Advertising, encouraging people to consume hundreds of times a day, helped get us into this mess, and reminding people once or twice a day to recycle can help get us out.
Ban green bags: There is in fact a bylaw stipulating a $130 fine for not recycling, but who can tell with dark-green garbage bags? These should be banned from use as they have been in PEI.
Separate Organics: Separating food scraps for collection is the next logical step. Organic material left in a landfill to decompose produces methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2. Homeowners in Etobicoke and Scarborough are already doing their part to separate organics; other areas should follow.
Get the apartments in: One blank spot in our current system is apartment dwellers, who don’t tend to separate their organics because it’s too much work. Many city councilors seem terrified to ask renters and condo owners to share responsibility. But really: with no lawns to mow, no leaves to rake, no leaks to fix, is five minutes a week to properly manage waste too much to ask? I challenge the mayoral candidates to take a stand on this issue.
The last six out: Hazardous waste (oil, paint, batteries, used prescriptions and fluorescent lights) should be returned to the stores where they were purchased.
We’ll set up depots for larger items, such as old computers and televisions (a rapidly growing toxic stream) and used furniture. These depots would be as common as Canadian Tire stores. On your way to buy something new, you’d simply drop off the old. Hell, we could have drive-though service, or even optional pick-up for those with more money than morals. These items could be repaired, resold or rented.
Residuals: Once we’ve taken these steps — gotten recycling up, organics in and the last six out — we can hand Toronto residents two small pails. One marked “burn” and the other marked “bury.” Each person could decide. Anyone producing more waste than could fit in the pails could be subject to a pay-as-you-throw provision. I suggest about $1,000 per bag. ROD MUIR
Rod Muir is the founder of Waste Diversion Toronto. This guest editorial is reprinted with permission of Toronto’s EYE Weekly magazine.