Toronto's green dilemma: coping with its own trash

City officials say it will offset the 600,000 metric tons of trash it sends to Michigan every year by recycling more.

This is a city that likes to think of itself as green. The city's fashionable mayor, David Miller, is a "progressive" on every issue, and was given the green stamp of approval in a recent article in Vanity Fair. But Canada's largest city has a dirty secret: It ships its raw garbage to another country, the United States.

Every day as many as 90 tractor trailers leave from seven different transfer stations, carrying Toronto's garbage to a dump in Carleton, Mich. Each truckload carries 73,000 pounds of household and commercial waste to a landfill 265 miles away.

And it isn't just garbage that heads to the US. Sewage sludge, the stuff that is left behind after purification, also heads to the same dump in Michigan, as many as 15 truckloads every day. But as of Tuesday, the Michigan dump is refusing to take Toronto's sewage sludge. Officials have found alternate locations for half the sludge, but are still looking for a place to send the other half.

"We've created a point of friction with an important neighbor. It's damaging to our reputation in Michigan. It's horrible. Americans are justifiably shocked," says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, an independent environmental watchdog group. The cost to Toronto of shipping 600,000 metric tons of garbage to Michigan is C$41.5 million (US $47 million), a year.

"The trip takes 12 to 13 hours there and back. Most days they X-ray the load at the border," says a driver waiting to clear the inspection station at the Dufferin Transfer Station at the northern limits of Toronto.

The driver makes the trip five days a week. He doesn't want to be identified and almost seems embarrassed at what he does for a living.

"It's a job," he shrugs.

He's not the only one who is embarrassed. Local politicians and environmentalists say they are distraught over Toronto's garbage crisis. The last landfill just north of the city was closed in 2002 by the provincial government, even though it wasn't full, says Mr. Miller. Local opposition in surrounding municipalities won't let Toronto open another one. In fact, other cities in the Greater Toronto Region also ship garbage to Michigan.

"It's nasty and not a solution at all, but a coverup for the overall incompetence of Toronto to cope [with its garbage]. It's embarrassing. It's not pleasant, but mature societies have to deal with these things," says Mr. Adams.

But Toronto's garbage situation used to be even worse. Three years ago there were 145 tractor trailers a day carrying garbage to Michigan until the city stepped up its recycling program.

"Forty percent of our waste is diverted," says Richard Butts, who is in charge of garbage for Toronto with the title of general manager, solid waste management. "It's the most successful urban recycling program in North America."

The city plans to increase the amount it recycles to as much as 65 or 70 percent of residential garbage.

"It's fair for Toronto to make that claim. I can't think of another city in North America that does as much recycling, and I'm not just saying it because I'm from Toronto," says Guy Crittenden, editor of Solid Waste and Recycling Magazine.

Finding a new landfill site or burning garbage has even become a political issue. When the New Democratic Party was in power in Ontario, it banned burning garbage in 1992. A Conservative government allowed burning in 1995, but it is still an ideological issue.

Mayor Miller of Toronto, who is identified with the left-leaning New Democratic Party, does not support burning garbage.

"I don't agree with burning. We have very serious air quality problems in Toronto. Transferring poison into the air I don't think is a wise alternative. It is also exceptionally expensive, about two and half times what we pay now," says Miller. Critics say incineration is now safer. They use the example of Sweden, which burns what is left over after recycling. While more expensive than hauling garbage away, incineration is about the same price as Toronto's organic waste recycling program.

"Unfortunately much of the debate [on incineration of garbage] in Canada is based on old knowledge from the '70s," wrote Lars Henriksson, consul general of Sweden in Toronto in a letter to the Toronto Star this year. "Since 1980, the emissions of dioxins from energy-from-waste plants have been reduced by more than 98 percent."

A citizens committee is studying the problem, but officials say it could be over a year until any decisions are made.

"The province requires us to look at all alternatives, so all technologies will be reviewed," says Miller. His objective is to end trucking garbage to Michigan by 2012, though he admits there might be problems meeting that goal.

On the streets of Toronto, garbage is collected five days a week. Twice a day, each truck dumps its load at transfer stations around the city which are then emptied onto huge floors. At the Dufferin station, frontend loaders push it through two holes over waiting tractor trailers headed for Michigan.

The recycling trucks dump their load in a nearby building where conveyer belts help sort the plastic from the paper, and magnets pull the steel out, letting the more valuable aluminum go by. In two rooms lit with bright fluorescent light, 20 to 30 people stand while sorting the recycling. Each person is in charge of picking out different objects; some grab for No. 5 plastic, others for No. 2, in a job of Dickensian dreariness.

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