Canadian Consulting Engineer

Waste not, Want not

Most of the time Canadians conveniently forget about all the excess stuff we produce because it is either whisked away from us in blue boxes at the curb, or dropped with an exhilarating sense of relea...

June 1, 2001   By Bronwen Ledger

Most of the time Canadians conveniently forget about all the excess stuff we produce because it is either whisked away from us in blue boxes at the curb, or dropped with an exhilarating sense of release over the edge of a rural dump site. In spring, however, the unsightly polystyrene cups, half-crushed cans and browning newspaper left exposed along roadsides and under hedges after the snow has retreated remind us that this stuff — this detritus of our consumer lives — sticks around for a long, long time.

For municipalities, finding a place to put all this spare stuff is becoming a major problem. At a Toronto conference organized by the Strategy Institute in April, Sherri Watson, policy advisor to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said that between 1996 and 1998 the costs of managing solid waste rose 72%. One hundred years ago, she said, about 80% of waste was ashes from heat and cooling, and 7% was packaging and disposable products. Today that ratio has flipped into reverse. We’re awash in garbage.

About 30% of Canada’s waste is being recycled or diverted into other uses, but as for the remaining 70%, towns and cities either have to incinerate it or find a hole to put it in. The holes had better be big ones — Watson said that in 20 years, according to Organization of Economic Development and StatsCan forecasts, we will be throwing away 70%-100% more.

Some people like Jeff White writing in the National Post think cities like Toronto should stop fretting about throwing away garbage because Canada has more than enough space for landfills. Certainly, Toronto’s current “disposal” method of hauling it by road hundreds of miles to Michigan is nonsensical. And just as ludicrous was the proposal to ship it by train to Ontario’s northland at Elliot Lake. No matter how sound the engineering was for the Adam’s Mine landfill proposal (and no matter how profitable for the proponents of the 50-year contract), the idea of all that labour and energy and resources being expended on trash seems to me an absurd piling of waste on top of waste.

But no more can it be common sense to follow White’s dictum and glibly pitch out the cardboard containers, the polystyrene plates, the newspapers and magazines, the cans and bottles, teabags and kettles, broken toys, margarine tubs, irons, fridges, televisions, computers, etc. etc.

Incineration is the sensible short-term answer — if only we could get the idea past citizens and health groups already choked by smog. In Europe and in Prince Edward Island where land is precious they have been successfully burning rubbish for years. New technologies may make incineration safe, but it is so expensive that few Canadian municipalities will take the risk.

We need to take a wider look. I’ve no formal training in economics, but it seems obvious to me that any system that produces waste at the rate ours does cannot be operating at its optimum efficiency. Surely we can find a way to continue conducting lives of comfort and ease, and yet make better use of our energy and resources. For over a decade green crusaders like Paul Hawken have been advocating the idea of engineering products for re-use instead of obsolescence. To move in that direction would take an inordinate amount of political will and effort — but no more than the amount of effort we currently waste producing stuff to burn or cram in holes.


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