Canada leads the developed world in per capita production of garbage. What’s behind our nation’s wasteful ways?

By Charles Wilkins

November 4, 2017

On the morning of May 3, 2016, at the Canada Fibers plant on Arrow Road in northwest Toronto, a worker spotted something abnormal and quickly sounded the alarm. The cavernous echoing facility is the separation site for the 800 tonnes of “recyclables” that Toronto’s waste management department collects daily from blue bags and bins around the city. As the impressive tonnage rattles and roars through the plant, high-tech machinery winnows steel cans from aluminum cans, from glass, from paper, from cardboard, from Styrofoam, from numerous other kinds of plastic. The mountains of separated detritus are then compressed into bales the size of pianos, and are shipped off to buyers… who break them down and sell them to manufacturers … who build them up again and sell them to consumers … who break them down again, and put them in recycle bins, from which they are picked up by one of the 800 curbside collection trucks used by the city; and the whole surreal process begins again … and then begins again.

But all of this went kerflooey on May 3, when the machinery at Arrow Road failed to recognize and “sort” what police later described as “a human body part.” Within minutes, the rumbling of the plant came to a halt, and the site was summarily shut down. And remained so for some 24 hours.

For Derek Angove, the city’s amiable and devoted director of solid waste management, the problem was not so much the macabre presence of the body part (decidedly a matter for the police) but rather that for an indefinite period of time the plant would be out of commission, and there would be no place to unload or winnow the never-ending avalanche of recyclables that pours into the facility at a rate of about two tonnes a minute, aboard 18-wheelers that pick up the goods from any of seven municipal transfer stations across the city.

Within minutes of the shutdown, Angove was on the phone securing alternative sorting sites in nearby Burlington and other parts of southern Ontario. “My job,” he said an hour later, “is to make sure that every item of waste we collect — from kitchen scraps to Christmas trees to mattresses to old carpeting and toilets – keeps moving. If for any reason the stream begins to back up, the transfer stations are full before you know it, the collection trucks can’t unload, and we’re in big trouble fast.”

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In a world increasingly inclined toward “suicide by garbage,” as the late American novelist Jim Harrison phrased it, Toronto might seem to be a mere whistle stop on the road to global self-destruction.

“Toronto is deceptive,” says Myra Hird, who teaches at the Queen’s University school of environmental studies in Kingston, Ont., where she is a specialist in waste management. “It tends to deal with its municipal waste so efficiently that the average person doesn’t see how much of it there is, or where it goes. Out of sight, out of mind, sort of thing.”

The last time Torontonians glimpsed the realities of their garbage habit was during the five-week municipal workers’ strike in 2009, when many of the city’s parks and outdoor rinks (devoid of ice in July) were buried up to four metres deep in stinking refuse. The previous glimpse came after 9/11, when U.S. border authorities temporarily stopped shipments of about a thousand tonnes per day of Toronto’s garbage to the Carleton Farms landfill in Michigan. At the time, another 4,000 tons of the city’s trash was being deposited daily in the Keele Valley landfill, Canada’s largest garbage dump, just north of Toronto in Vaughan — a site that was itself under pressure and about to close its drawbridge on Toronto’s daily outpouring of rubbish.

Any outsider granted a behind-the-scenes peek at that outpouring is likely to be struck by its volume and variety and cost – more than a million dollars a day to keep it all moving. But what really hits the uninitiated, and hits hard, is the flow of it all, the river — the nightmarish relentlessness with which the waste keeps coming, keeps needing a place to go, to hide, to die, sometimes to be reborn. All of which echoes the relentlessness of the country’s garbage production as a whole. Despite what anyone might believe about the country’s oft-cited ecological values and its liberal ambitions for the planet, Canada leads the developed world in per capita production of garbage.

“We tend to think that if other countries were more like Canada, the planet could be saved,” says Hird. “But if every country was like Canada in terms of all-out consumerism and waste, the planet would be even more messed up than it is.” What really hits the uninitiated is the flow of it all — the nightmarish relentlessness with which the waste keeps coming, keeps needing a place to go, to hide, to die, sometimes to be reborn.

The 720 kilos per capita of waste produced annually by every Canadian is about twice what is produced per capita in Japan, and as much as 10 times what is produced by a half-dozen countries in Africa. More alarmingly, our production is seven per cent higher than per capita ouput of waste in the United States, which all but invented consumer excess.

“As our greatest concentration of people,” says Hird, “Toronto is basically garbage central — a pretty fair representation of what’s happening, or not happening, with domestic waste throughout the country.”

Beyond the city’s annual processing of 200,000 tonnes of recyclables, its residents produce household garbage (the stuff we put in green bags) at a rate of 10,000 tonnes a week, or half a million tonnes a year. For maximum efficiency, tractor trailers, each bearing nearly 40 tonnes of compacted garbage, are meticulously clocked out of Toronto so as to arrive at the city’s Green Lane landfill near London, Ont. at a rate of one every 10 minutes, hour by hour, weekday after weekday.

Relative to most rural settings in southwestern Ontario, and despite its pastoral name, Green Lane is not so much a parcel of land, or even a dump in any typical sense, as another planet. Located just north of Highway 401, about 200 kilometres west of Toronto, the 130-hectare public landfill (Canada’s biggest) throws a memorable pong across the surrounding countryside but is otherwise barely discernible to anyone who does not actively seek it out. A grassy berm separates it from the 401, and the side road to the site passes a hardwood forest and creek remediated by the City of Toronto, in part as a kind of thank-you to Southwold Township for taking on Toronto’s garbage at a time when other constituencies wanted nothing to do with it.

The landfill’s relatively dressy exterior is significantly influenced by its manager, Anne Hiscock, a lawyer turned engineer whose office, on the site’s north side, is in a faux-residential building surrounded by a riot of yellow gardens that, a year ago, earned the site a place on the local Communities-in-Bloom tour.

However, as Angove and Hiscock accompany a first-time visitor up the long ramp to the lip of the landfill proper, Angove offers a gentle caution about what lies ahead: an experience perhaps unimagined, or even unimaginable. And he is well-justified in doing so. The visitor and his chaperones come over the last incline in the road, out onto a dusty mesa from which the valley beyond might be mistaken for a vast archaeological dig, one that has unearthed a somehow familiar civilization, or more precisely what remains of that civilization when it bags up the leftovers from its pillaging of the planet and tosses the bags into an 11-million-cubic-metre hole. Seeing the place for the first time is a moment for which no convenient hyperbole is too big (think Cortez, gazing at the Pacific, “silent on a peak in Darien,” as John Keats put it). Except that the ocean here is not of course water but garbage, fathoms of it, a sea on which 18-wheelers and Caterpillar landfill compactors move about like small ships, the sound of their engines silenced by distance and the persistent howl of the wind.

Typically, such a place would be host to legions of scavenging birds (Vancouver’s Ladner landfill, at Delta, hosts several thousand gulls and a thousand bald eagles). But on this day at Green Lane there are just two birds – rentals, of all things – both perched on the viewing promontory: an aging golden eagle and a Harris hawk, a kind of missile with wings, that Angove says is “the work horse” of the pair. Green Lane hires the tamed raptors from Predator Bird Services to come and sit by the site on perches, within metres of their handler’s vehicle. From there, the hawk takes an occasional tour over the garbage, to remind gulls that the landfill is not the paradise they might have assumed (the old eagle is more of an implied threat these days). “So, we have no birds,” says Hiscock.

And no rats. And no bears.

Green Lane, like all landfills, does have a hellacious population of microbes, quintillions of them, that eat away at the dump’s contents, producing methane gas, a serious greenhouse offender, at a rate of 96 cubic metres per minute (enough to fill a two-car garage nearly 1,500 times a day). The gas is collected by dozens of vertical and horizontal gas wells and is burned off or “flared,” although plans are proceeding to construct a power plant that will convert the methane to usable energy. At Keele Valley, Toronto’s former landfill, which was decommissioned 16 years ago, methane still pours from the buried trash in sufficient volume to fuel a plant that provides enough electricity to supply 20,000 homes.

A natural clay underlay at Green Lane prevents toxic leachate from getting into the groundwater. “We know the clay is impenetrable,” says Angove. “Tests showed water molecules just above it that dated back 10,000 years” — in other words to a time when the last of the Wisconsin glaciers was dragging its icy tail across the territory.