Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Toronto Has A State of Emergency in Its Garbage Bins

Every spring we'd trundle down to our local Environment Day location and stuff our car or truck with Toronto compost. It was wonderful stuff, and our backyard needed it. And then the city of Toronto introduced the green bin program. When I looked at the list of things going in it, I remembered our stoop and scoop guy saying that he took the dog's, uh, waste to the sewage plant as it's the best place to handle stuff like that, and I shuddered. Toronto was taking diapers and kitty litter in the green bin -- ewwww, stinky compost! -- and also expecting us to do things like put mayo in the green bin and the jar in the blue bin, like everyone had the time and energy to be that finicky a garbage sorter. I immediately decided I would no longer be using the city's compost. I wanted my plants to live.
"Garbage in means garbage out," Susan Antler, executive director of the Composting Council of Canada says.

The ministry told Universal it had logged 120 complaints of odours such as smells akin to "vomit" or "dead animals" since the facility opened last fall.

[Travis] Woollings [partner in 1,600-hectare farm where Toronto's maturing compost is dumped] enthusiastically sings its praises. But when he reaches into the dark pile and grabs a handful, he plucks out shreds of plastic and glass....Woollings provided a bag of compost upon request. During the two-hour drive from London to Toronto, the smell of ammonia went from bad to indescribable. (, The Toronto Star, 4 July 2009)
A long time ago, I asked in a blog post just what happens to the city's garbage? I opined about how garbage has become an ideology of "garbage bad, recyclables and green good," as a way to justify us paying for the privilege of becoming mini sorting plants, to use landfill over any other means of disposal and even waste-to-energy conversion, and to put garbage over humans, especially the most vulnerable in our society. And I questioned if Toronto's trash is truly sorted to the degree everyone claims?

It's taken two years and quite some sniffing around, but the Toronto Star has at last answered my question with regard to the green bin stuff. I'm not surprised with what they've found: green bin contents too rotted to use, stinky compost from all that animal waste, and immature compost dangerous to plants.
In each of 2007 and 2008, the city shipped 1,000 truckloads to Quebec. By the time the green bin waste arrived, locked inside plastic bags the city wants residents to use, it was sometimes so rotten it went straight to landfill, says Quebec's environment ministry. (, The Toronto Star, 4 July 2009)
It's just plain weird to me that the city banned biodegradable plastic bags, not wanting them in the blue bins or the green bins (huh? but regular ones OK?), yet, unlike regular plastic bags, biodegradable ones would probably give the green bin contents half a chance. In addition, in the name of green and garbage mecca we have this 5-cent tax to the private sector for every plastic bag we dare to take while at the same time being required to use them, not biodegradable bags, to seal our green bin waste in so the smell won't drive us batty for the week we store it. A week, even three days, is a long time to hold onto organic waste. As someone who's been backyard composting for eons, I know how quickly veggie peelings decompose; it's less than a week before the fruit flies start sprouting from them. That's without them being in a plastic bag. Given that the city requires people to store their green bin crap for a week, including contents that moulder faster than a potato, I'm surprised it's even compostable at the time it's picked up from homes. That it's rotten by the time it hits the plants then is to be expected.

And then there's the whole incineration hypocrisy. Miller and NDP Councillors will not, under any circumstances, have incinerators in their backyard, but it's OK to use them in other cities, other states, to burn the plastic bags used to rot the green garbage in.

Toronto is like the keystone kops when it comes to dealing with its trash. The politicians avoided the topic for as long as possible, and then after amalgamation, started taking on this religious fervour about it, separating "good" garbage from "bad" as if somehow the byproducts of our consumptive lifestyle have moral values. It's all garbage, whether biodegradable, recyclable, or useless. We will not redeem it by paying for the privilege of becoming the very best trash sorters in our own homes. For it all comes from consuming. It all comes from a manufacturing sector gone bananas over packaging, from a food sector that's created packaged products out of food, from people who cannot dream of eating leftovers and so chuck out great heaps of food, from a society that thinks paper towels are superior to rags, from a supermarket culture superceding the local butcher/greengrocer culture, from people who're so inconsiderate and self-involved as to think the public space is their personal dump, from politicians who've forgotten about the garbage-rat-raccoon cycle until suddenly temporary dumps brought it to the fore, from politicians who long ago chose to go the easy route and espouse the 3Rs instead of halting the exponential growth in garbage production as a way to deal with our trash, and from a city that thinks the best way to deal with it all is to devise a garbage policy that only the healthy with time on their hands can cope with easily and which is, in essence, all smoke and mirrors.
"Despite some minor growing pains, Toronto's green bin program is one of the most effective in North America," wrote Geoff Rathbone, general manager of the city's solid waste management services. (, The Toronto Star, 7 July 2009)
Who's he kidding? Mayor Miller today made some equally nonsensical murmurings about what The Toronto Star dug up.
Rathbone said it's meant to be used as a "soil conditioner and should be mixed with soil at a ratio of 1 part compost to 4 parts soil." (, The Toronto Star, 7 July 2009)
That advice is for good, mature compost, not the glass-filled plant-killing compost the city churns out.

Rathbone continued in this article to say that the city has a 44 percent diversion rate from both organics and recycling. Prove it.
The city's website says 30 per cent of the waste stream is diverted through the organics program. A provincial monitoring agency, on the other hand, says Toronto has an 18 per cent organics diversion rate. (, The Toronto Star, 7 July 2009)
That means only 14 percent is diverted through recyclables if the city's estimate is correct, and since the city's number is all smoke-and-mirror bullshit, I ask again how much of our recyclables end up in the blue bin and how much of those are truly recycled? I don't think we're getting to the 70 percent diversion goal Miller set awhile ago. And it's the wrong goal anyway.

Will Miller's plan to spend $65 million on expanding this flawed program be his MFP scandal?

We should be reducing our garbage, period. All of it. Only organics -- cause we need to eat -- are not all that reducable. But since I was a kid, living in a large family, I've only ever seen the amount of garbage increase as households decrease in size. That's the fault of manufacturers primarily and our consumptive lifestyle secondarily. The best thing Toronto could do to reduce garbage is to band with other municipalities in passing bylaws that would force manufacturers to halve, at least, their packaging. Those same manufacturers also don't need to produce a gazillion variations of the same product. Over-choice is a problem. I still remember stories of former Soviet Union citizens standing paralyzed in grocery stories from the sheer choice of items, that is variations of the same item.

At the same time, the city needs to get real and stop expecting us to pay for the privilege of sorting. It's difficult, time-consuming, confusing, and inefficient. And it harms the most vulnerable of all and separates them from the rest of society even more as they cannot sort or physically handle the bins, thus requiring special dispensation to use bags or to have it picked up (theoretically) at their front door.

Residents took to the blue box like Michael Jackson to dancing, only to have City Hall demand more. Soon, homeowners were converted to garbage pickers – separating trash into three or more streams before setting it out.

Soon after, council started charging residents for the waste remnants that the city doesn't recycle or compost. Finally, City Hall turned waste management into a utility – a user-pay system that could slap residents with high dumping fees as early as next year. (Royson James, The Toronto Star, 7 July 2009)

The Michigan landfill's manager, Dan Gudgel, said in an interview he could not compost Universal's organics [from Toronto] because the contamination meant it would take too long to get Michigan government approvals. (Moira Welsh, The Toronto Star, 4 July 2009)

I think that says it all about Toronto's vaunted handling of garbage. As he put it so succinctly, we "have a state of emergency" in our trash bins.

4 comments:

Tara Elizabeth said...

This is such a great post. I didn't even realize any of this was happening. Thanks for the link to the Toronto Star article. I feel very out of the woods on this issue, great information. Thanks alot!

talk talk talk / Shireen said...

Tara, thank you so much! It's a pet peeve of mine, and I'm glad you found my post informative!!

Anonymous said...

its rare to see women garbage workers - driving the truck or taking the trash

if they are high paying jobs. why don't more women do this ?

talk talk talk / Shireen said...

Good question. I suspect part of the problem is just getting a toe in the door.