Michigan, we used to love you. We Torontonians loved your 11,000 lakes, your 130 lighthouses, and the way you happily accepted all our garbage and made it go away. When we went to bed each Garbage Day Eve, our trash bags would be spilling over our curbs and filling the air with odours fishy enough to drive neighbourhood cats delirious. Then, when we woke up in the morning, it would all be gone.
Nowadays, though, our Michiganite neighbours are getting all uppity. They don’t want our garbage anymore, they say. Our generous gift of 100 truckloads a day (or approximately 850,000 tonnes a year) of Toronto trash is no longer being appreciated.
And so it should be. For too many decades now Toronto has been dealing with its garbage problem by doing the municipal equivalent of sweeping it under the rug. With our own landfills already overflowing and operating long past their planned closure dates, and strict laws and NIMBY sentiments that make it almost impossible to open new landfills, Toronto is caught between a rock and a hard place.
And now Halton Region, just west of Toronto, has stepped into this stinky mess with a potential solution. They are considering building new garbage incineration facilities large enough to accept 70% of Toronto’s garbage, burn it, and turn the resulting energy into electricity. The plant could be open by 2009, early enough to begin solving the garbage crisis before Michigan shuts the border to our garbage altogether.
Not surprisingly, there is opposition.
Most environmentalists are opposed to incineration, because in their view it merely takes the problem of too much garbage and turns it into another problem: smog. Since Toronto’s air quality is already nothing to be proud of, this would indeed be bad news. Supporters of incineration counter by claiming that the smog fears are based on outdated technology, and modern incinerators are clean and emit very little pollution.
Environmentalists also worry about the business model of such a plant. If garbage is burned to produce electricity to sell, then more garbage suddenly becomes a good thing. This is starkly counterproductive for those who want to use programs like recycling, composting and re-use to reduce the amount of garbage we produce.
This too is a valid concern. The blue and green bin recycling programs already in place in Toronto are some of the most successful in North America, already diverting 40% of our garbage from landfill or incineration. Some think this rate can be increased to 65% or 70%, which would be an astonishing achievement. But this would be unlikely to happen without the overwhelming incentive of a garbage crisis.
That said, even if we reach our most ambitious recycling goals, 30% of 850,000 tonnes is still a heck of a lot of garbage that needs to go somewhere. When we add to that the sister problem of 160,000 annual tonnes of human sewage sludge that also needs disposal, it becomes clear that Toronto’s waste disposal problem, like the garbage itself, won’t be easy to get rid of.
Photo from the Christian Science Monitor.