Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Garbage: the burning question

Waste is one of life's more problematic challenges. By definition, garbage comprises items that have no value. In truth, value can be found within all garbage within all societies and the wealthier the society the greater the chance that some residual value can be found by sifting through the detritus of daily life. However, all the reduction, re-use and recycling in the world can not alter the basic fact that garbage runs counter to the foundational principle of economics: supply and demand. With garbage, they will always be an excess of supply and too little demand. It is garbage precisely because it has little to no value.

What does this mean for waste management? It means that wealthy societies with available land have disposed of their garbage using sanitary landfills. Lately, however, pressures for alternate land uses and the desire to dispose of garbage within (or at least close to) the community generating the waste is leading to a reconsideration of waste management options, particularly incineration.

Ontario finds itself in this position. The Metro Toronto area has run out of its own landfilling capacity, has been denied by provincial legislation (don't ask!) the option to bury waste in an abandoned mine near Kirkland Lake, has seen its export of garbage to willing hosts in Michigan curtailed by State fiat and has now purchased an existing landfill in a rural county with enough capacity for the next 10 to 20 years. In short, Toronto is living on borrowed time and successive provincial and municipal governments have sought to avoid tackling the long-term resolution to the issue (well other than the enforced adoption of a province-wide reduce, re-use and recylce program that successfully sorts the garbage using bright blue boxes but still sees over 80% of that blue box material eventually find itself being landfilled because the market is not there for recycled materials and/or the capacity to recycle material does not exist).

At long last, public attention is being drawn to Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan where incineration is successfully used to resolve the garbage question. Proponents of incineration in the Canadian context face challenges from environmental precautionists who worry about air emissions (despite the successfully technology and accompanying environmental standards in those other jurisdictions) and from the ideologues who cling to the notion that somehow a yet more aggressive waste reduction program could yet result in a zero waste society (well if it takes zero consumption to do that, that just the price we should pay).

Incineration works. But it also transfers waste from garbage into fuel: a huge shift in dominant construct. Is Ontario ready?