Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Toronto's New Landfill

Toronto has purchased a landfill in southwestern Ontario and hopefully brought the end to the emotional and often illogical debate over what to do with our city's garbage.

There are those on the hard left who claim that the City's purchase of a landfill is a betrayal of environmental principles. But this nonsense ignores the fact that, despite Toronto's leading-edge efforts at waste diversion, there will always be some garbage left over. In the end we have to bury it or burn it. The debate over which has been warped by political circumstances and an irrational shame about our waste.

I've seen arguments made about landfilling or incinerating that go down one of two paths -- Science or Responsbility. The problem is that these paths are rarely followed consistently.

If we were to have a real debate on the Science issue, it would be a debate about which approach is likely to cause the least harm to the least people, and about which approach is the most efficient and cost effective. Advocates of incineration frequently raise the Science argument when they discuss new technologies for burning that reduce the toxins released into the air.

But the argument rarely gets carried far enough to compare the risks of incineration to the risks of landfilling waste in a less-populated area. Landfills are simply dismissed as not happening in Ontario. They have been a dead concept here due to strong NIMBYism and cowardice at Queen's Park. But that has nothing to do with the environment, with health, or with cost.

(Like most commentators, I'm not really qualified to make my own science-based argument. However, when it comes to dealing with a bizarre combination of industrally-produced molecules, it seems safer to leave them to sit in a remote place with an impermeable geology than to transform them, in the middle of a city, through the unpredictable chemical process known as combustion. This is especially so when the latter process is rather more expensive and still leaves us with a pile of toxic ash in the end.)

When the Responsibility argument is raised, the point is to shame Torontonians because their garbage crosses an international border. Why this is actually a moral problem has never been completely clear to me, especially when toxic wastes happen to flow in the opposite direction.

In any case, you can't take responsibility when you don't have rights and the ability to act. If you want the City of Toronto to take responsibility for its own waste, then it needs the right to identify a environmentally-secure site for a landfill, then construct it and use it. But the political climate in Ontario has made this impossible. Through some good luck, Toronto has now been able to buy a landfill that was already approved, and it looks like the problem is finally solved.

Through these difficult years, the City has been pushed to develop initiatives designed to divert waste from landfill in the form of recycling and composting. The political blockage that prevented us from building a landfill has driven us to innovate in alternatives, and I certainly hope we continue. There is much that can be done in terms of increased diversion, particularly from apartments, condominiums and businesses in Toronto. While the pressure is off, that's no reason to stop.

Additionally, we must not forget waste prevention. There are many proposals that could be implemented here. However, if you are interested in this, please direction your attention to Queen's Park and/or Ottawa, where they have the power to make laws and regulations in this regard.


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