Thoughts on Toronto’s garbage system


When you throw something in the garbage, do you know where it goes? If you live in Toronto like I do, chances are it’s going to Michigan. I was given an assignment in one of my classes regarding the garbage disposal process for Toronto, and in doing some research I found that most people either don’t know or don’t care where their garbage goes. You may be surprised at how much this lack of knowledge costs us.

In the 1990s, the city’s last remaining landfill site, Keele Valley, neared capacity. Research was conducted to locate another municipality to accept Toronto’s garbage but no other municipalities offered their capacity, so an alternate solution had to be found. Adams Mine, an abandoned open pit mine in northern Ontario was selected as a good candidate for the disposal of Toronto’s municipal solid waste. However, once the closure of the Keele Valley landfill site grew near, objections mounted to the Adams Mine disposal project, and after much protest the project was cancelled.
The Keele Valley landfill site finally closed at the end of 2002. Without a local solution to our problem of waste disposal thanks to the cancellation of the Adams Mine project, Toronto was forced to come up with a new plan, and in doing so forged a deal with a municipality in Michigan to truck all our garbage there at a cost of $22 per tonne.

The process of shipping our waste long distances to another country has resulted in many problems and complaints, such as security concerns with border crossings, opposition from Michigan residents, concerns about the pollution generated by thousands of diesel-powered trucks traveling to and from Michigan every day, to doubts about the cost-effectiveness of the practice. Toronto’s waste disposal contract with Michigan is in effect until 2008, however many people are seeking options to end the contract sooner. In February 2006 a vote was passed in the House of Representatives to ban out of state garbage from being shipped into Michigan, a move that would block Ontario garbage as well as that from other states. If this ban is approved by the US Federal Government, it would mean the end of Toronto’s easy disposal of our municipal solid waste.

These issues have all promoted the need to seek alternate disposal methods, and increase the city’s recycling programs. In 2005 Toronto switched from the previous Blue Box (plastics, glass and metal) & Grey Box (paper and newsprint) recycling program to a unified box system, which transfers the task of sorting the recyclable items to workers at a recycling transfer station. This was done in hopes of making recycling such an effortless task for the average citizen that it would become habit, and therefore would increase the rate of materials being recycled.

In 2005 Toronto also introduced a Green Bin urban composting program, following the example set by Guelph and other communities in recent years. Complaints have surfaced about the Green Bin program however. The program cost is roughly 3 times the cost per ton compared to shipping the material to Michigan, however from an environmental point of view, composting waste is preferable to land filling it. Other complaints arise from the smell of the materials inside the bin, which is a direct result of the materials beginning anaerobic decomposition inside the bin in the absence of proper composting conditions, while awaiting the weekly pickup. Rural or backyard composting if done properly does not have these issues, as the material is able to break down in natural aerobic conditions. The Green Bin program is a part of the 3-stream waste management system that has been implemented in the city of Toronto, and is an integral stage in the goal to eventually become a Zero Waste city. Green Bins allow any organic waste to be composted that would otherwise have been sent to landfill. This process turns the waste into valuable soil conditioner and fertilizer which turns a waste product into a resource. Materials that are composted include food scraps, used tissues, feminine sanitary pads, diapers, and any other organic waste.
The average component of municipal solid waste that can be diverted to composting facilities is around 25%-30%, and another 30% composed of regular recyclable materials, however even with these amounts, a diversion of 60% of our waste materials with the Green Bin and Recycling Box programs would still result in 2,425 tons of solid waste from the city of Toronto, or a total of 882,000 tons per year.
The other option being investigated is a waste to energy converter, which uses the process of incineration. This usually evokes a stroke negative response from people due to concerns about the toxic emissions that incinerators can emit. Stack scrubbers and emissions control technology has improved greatly over the past decades, and incinerators are no longer necessarily dirty and dangerous systems that they once were. Despite public opposition, incinerators are being used successfully in many parts of the world, and there is currently an incinerator in operation in the city of Brampton, which meets the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s emissions standards, saves money by not shipping some of the waste to Michigan, as well as producing enough power to serve approximately 5,000 homes.

Ultimately, however, in order to achieve the goal of a zero waste community, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we handle product design and packaging. Far too often products are over packaged and oversized, which results in excessive waste.

Architect & designer William McDonough, along with his business partner industrial chemist Michael Braungart, have developed a process which they call Cradle to Cradle (C2C), where items are composed of what they term biological nutrients and technical nutrients. With this system, which is mimicking natural systems, every technical component in the system is either infinitely recyclable to an equal or greater form, and for the biological nutrients, are compostable to provide nutritional benefit to soil, leaving no waste products. The first product to be certified to this standard was an office chair, which is verified to be 99.99% recyclable.
In terms of plastic waste, the C2C model has 2 different types of plastics composed of Durable plastics, and Disposable plastics. Durables are designed to last for a long time, and are made of recyclable types of plastics that are unmixed to allow for recycling of any types, including plastic product enclosures, containers, in addition to food containers. Disposable plastics would be made of vegetable starch, and would be designed to last only several days, weeks or months to contain food or other products that require a plastic wrapping. After this purpose is completed, the bioplastic would be composted and would return nutrients to the soil.
If more care is taken to plan our products, and what happens at the end of that product’s life cycle, then we could truly achieve very close to a zero waste society.

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Steve holds a degree in Environmental Engineering Technology from Humber College in Toronto, is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor. He currently lives in Victoria BC and works as a green building consultant specializing in residential projects.


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