Our next big garbage fight is here

A fledgling city advisory committee is vocally resisting pressure to make a hasty decision about how to deal with a major chunk of Toronto’s garbage, despite growing pressure from the provincial government and Michigan residents for the city to come up with a new plan for dealing with its waste.

The committee is made up of citizens and experts and is supposed to recommend a “new and emerging technology” for dealing with much of Toronto’s residential waste by 2006.

Some observers feared the group was set up to help rubber-stamp a return to incineration in Toronto. But in a twist, the committee — which held its most recent meeting on March 5 — has decided to explore a broader mandate than the one set for it by council: now, it plans to look first at whether Toronto ought to recycle a much higher percentage of its garbage than it currently has plans to do. (An emphasis on more intensive recycling is a route the city of Halifax has taken, to wide acclaim.)

While that approach will be welcomed by most environmentalists, it will also probably set the committee on a collision course with some councillors, first because of outside time pressures, and second because the more conservative members of council don’t believe residents want to pay the high costs per tonne associated with more intensive recycling.

This situation stems from the city’s Waste Diversion Task Force 2010 report, which councillors approved in June, 2001. That report, which was strongly endorsed by Mayor Mel Lastman at the time, states that Toronto must divert 60 per cent of its household waste from landfill by 2006, and 100 per cent by 2010.

(In order to meet that 2006 goal, the city must fully implement its “three-stream” organic recycling program, which is now operational in the former Etobicoke, and improve a range of other programs such as apartment recycling. But the city must also select some sort of new technology and have it built and running by then: such a technology is scheduled to account for a whopping one-third of all residential waste diversion by that time.)

The burgeoning dispute is also the crux of the city’s next major garbage battle, one that some environmentalists say will dwarf the Adams Mine debacle — particularly if it ends in a push by council to build some kind of garbage-burning technology.

Councillor Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York South-Weston), who attended the March 5 meeting of the New and Emerging Technologies, Policies and Practices Advisory Group on behalf of council’s works committee, has already expressed reservations about the delays. “We need to move quickly,” he says. Chris Stockwell, Ontario’s environment minister, is demanding to see the city’s contingency plan should the border be shut down, notes Di Giorgio, “and I’m not sure how long council can extend [the committee’s] timeline.”

Legislators and media in Michigan, where all Toronto’s garbage has been shipped since the the Keele Valley landfill closed at the beginning of this year, have recently been agitating to close the border to Toronto’s garbage. City of Toronto staff are confident that NAFTA protects the garbage-exporting arrangement from state government interference, but has no plan — except to beg for provincial help — should Toronto’s garbage be barred access to the border for more than 21 days.

Di Giorgio also thinks that the advisory group’s focus on diversion is at odds with the mission councillors intended it to have. “The advisory group thinks we should exhaust all potential to take garbage out of the waste stream before we begin looking at new and emerging technologies, which is a little different from what I sense council wants us to do,” Di Giorgio says.

“The advisory group needs to understand that we’re trying to match a technology to the residual waste stream once all the organics have been removed.”

(“Residual” is a term now used by the city to refer to the trash that’s left after everything that can be recycled, composted or reused has been removed.)

“The council timelines are too short for good decision-making, as it stands now,” says Karen Buck, who sits on the group on behalf of Citizens for a Safe Environment, an east-end advocacy group that is particularly concerned about the possibility an incinerator could once more be located in the city’s port lands. (An incinerator on Commissioners Street was closed in the 1980s after a public outcry over pollution.)

Buck drew applause from the committee room gallery at the March 5 meeting when she made a barnburner of a speech resisting what she felt was a city-staff push to incineration. She says the group’s progress so far has been encouraging. “I left that meeting feeling very optimistic that there could be a solution, a way of handling residual waste and the decision-making process in a manner that would be publicly acceptable,” she says.

At the advisory group’s second meeting, which was held in February, it voted to examine the results of a city waste audit and then deal with waste-diverting policies and practices — broadening the group’s mandate — before moving on to technologies. This means that it will be at least summer before the group issues a request for expressions of interest from potential technology vendors.

Di Giorgio and Buck do agree that the advisory group will have a better sense of where it’s going after it studies the results of that waste audit, which will be conducted this April at the city’s west-end transfer station. Bags of garbage will be broken open by strong-stomached city staff and their contents sorted and catalogued. The audit will detail how much recyclable and organic material, and genuinely residual waste, are making it into landfill.

Some environmentalists already see the advisory committee’s approach as an unexpected cause for hope. “For a period of time, the words ‘policies and practices’ [which refer to the group’s mandate] weren’t even in the equation referring to this group. They got tacked back onto the end, but they got it ass-backwards,” says Rod Muir of Waste Diversion Toronto, an advocacy organization. He says the committee’s new emphasis on diversion is a reason to be optimistic.

The advisory group was originally scheduled to report to council’s works committee early this month with a recommendation about which technology to use. But because the membership of the group wasn’t approved until February, the reporting deadline has been postponed indefinitely.

The group consists of four expert and seven non-expert citizens (including a co-chair from each category). It also includes non-voting representatives of a business improvement association, the Board of Trade, the Ontario Waste Management Association, city staff and the works committee.

Many environmentalists believe that when councillors and staff talk about new and emerging technologies, they really mean advanced thermal technologies (ATT), which are a new and supposedly improved form of incineration.

Whereas incineration technologies superheat garbage once in the presence of oxygen, these newer technologies heat waste twice: it’s first heated without oxygen, a method sometimes called reducing, and then residues or gases resulting from that process are heated with oxygen.

ATT plants are also supposed to have more environmental controls than incinerators so that fewer emissions escape. Proponents say ATT is a safer way to get rid of residual garbage than incineration, that it can be done relatively cheaply and that it can also turn garbage into an energy source. Critics say such technologies are not safe at all and that they’re just incineration under another name.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 13, 2003.