Ontario residents are not as environmentally conscious as they might think, according to a recent study from Metroland Media Group. Trash Troubles: Grappling with our Garbage
is a special three-part report compiled by Metroland's journalists who set out to better understand the nature and magnitude of our waste diversion efforts in the province. And overall, they didn't like what they saw.
The presence of extensive waste diversion programs in Ontario like the Blue Box or the Green Bin may have convinced some residents that enough is being down to keep recyclable materials out of landfill. In addition to stewardship programs for recyclables and organics compost, Ontario currently offers take-back programs for automotive tires, special and hazardous materials, and electric/electronic waste, in addition to the bottle deposit on all wine, spirits, and beer bottles at The Beer Store
What our attitudes towards waste fail to consider is that the ultimate success of these stewardship programs depends entirely upon individuals, industry, and municipalities taking advantage of the programs in place.
Turns out if you build it, they may not come after all.
The Waterloo Record
notes that upwards of 55 per cent of the material that ends up in landfill could be recycled, a problem that is especially acute with plastics where only 25 per cent is recycled. This means not only that our recycling facilities are being under-utilized, but that our landfills are filling up at a much faster rate than previously anticipated.
“Our garbage continues to outstrip available landfill space,” said the Association of Municipalities of Ontario
president Gary McNamara in the Record
. “We must either reduce our waste and recycle more waste, or accept new landfills or incinerators in our communities.”
But putting the fate of Ontario's waste in the hands of landfills is not the best way to approach waste diversion. "Dealing with garbage by landfilling everything is long since passé," writes the Guelph Mercury
. "The leaching of materials into groundwater and soil and the economic value of diverting marketable materials from the discard stream were lead motivators in the demise of that strategy."
Any reliance on landfilling is especially fraught if the plan involves the creation of new landfills. The Metroland report indicates that Ontario's landfill approval procedures are not only expensive, but incredibly lengthy.
"You can spend six, seven, eight years preparing and not get an approval at the end of the day," Adam Chamberlain told Metroland in the second-part of the series. Chamberlain, a Toronto environmental lawyer, added that "approving a landfill in Ontario is not for the faint of heart."
The report also indicated that:
In fact, the Ministry of Environment hasn't approved a single new landfill site since 1999. During that time 147 small landfills have closed, leaving Ontario with 958 existing active landfills. But many of those are small and not classified as capable of taking on a major municipality's trash. About 85 per cent of Ontario's waste goes to only 32 Ontario landfills classified by the ministry as "large."
Metroland does not lay the blame for Ontario's trash woes solely at the doorstep of residents. Part of the problem is the mash-up of waste policies across the province that make it exceptionally difficult to know what can be diverted from landfill, and where. Municipalities reserve the right to determine which materials their blue box programs will take - and with 444 municipalities in Ontario, there are few consistent rules across the board.
“You go to cottage country and it’s different,” Trevor Barton told the Record
. “You go to your neighbouring municipality and it’s different. It’s very frustrating for residents.” Barton is Peel Region’s waste management planning supervisor.
The issue is further complicated by the renewed interest in long-distance shipping of garbage, and especially in cross-border solutions to the province's waste problem. After Toronto recently ceased shipping its waste to Michigan, many assumed that the issue was closed.
But not so. The report indicates that "Durham and Napanee are shipping waste to New York. Durham says it is a temporary solution until its Clarington incinerator opens in 2014. Napanee's garbage goes to New York after its landfill closed in June."
But Durham and Napanee are not the only municipalities shipping garbage south of the border. Some of York Region's organic compost is transferred to a compost facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts, because York's Ontario contractor is unable to accommodate the volume of waste the region generates.
Not a single municipality surveyed by Metroland had reached the waste diversion targets they had set for themselves. Toronto, the province's largest metropolitan area, had set an ambitious target of 70 per cent diversion
under previous mayor David Miller. Today its diversion rate sits at 47 per cent.
What can be done to help Ontario and Ontarians improve upon their disappointing waste diversion actions? One of the easiest ways to increase our collective and individual diversion rates is utilizing the programs at our disposal. A greater awareness of the valuable stewardship programs on offer is needed so that more residents know not only what programs are on offer to help them make the right waste diversion choices, but why their co-operation goes so far towards making Ontario a healthier and cleaner place to live.
Material Diversion Programs in Ontario:
• Blue Box Waste
(paper, plastic bottles, aluminum cans)
• Municipal Hazardous or Special Waste
(paints, oil filters, dry-cell batteries)
• Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
(computers, televisions, cellphones)
• Used Tires
(cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, trailers)
• Bottle Deposit Return
(wine, spirit and beer bottles)