Industry group calls for integrated waste plan to stop Michigan from pulling Ontario's strings
Ontario is headed for a waste management crisis unless the provincial government acts quickly to implement an integrated plan for managing Ontario's waste within its own boundaries. As the situation now stands, U.S. border laws and Michigan's disposal rules are controlling the management of waste in Ontario, says a study done for the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA).
"Ontario is the worst jurisdiction in Canada when it comes to ensuring it has the capacity to manage its own waste," said OWMA president Nigel Guilford. "No other province ships more than one-third of its garbage destined for landfill to another jurisdiction, let alone another country. That's 3.5 million tonnes of garbage per year, which means that every day more than 370 tractor trailer loads of waste cross the U.S. border into Michigan."
The study, undertaken by RIS International, reveals a critical lack of landfill capacity in Ontario, a situation forecast to worsen considerably over the next five years. This lack of capacity, combined with unpredictable access to the U.S. disposal market, has created an unstable waste disposal system in the province. RIS International's managing partner Maria Kelleher, author of the study report, wrote that "more permitted landfill capacity is needed in Ontario to meet our current and future needs domestically, even if significant waste diversion occurs over time."
The business sector generates nearly two-thirds of the waste produced in Ontario and the capacity to dispose of this waste in Ontario landfills is forecast to drop by 50% by 2010. This would result in even more of Ontario's waste needing to be sent to the U.S. for disposal. The problem, says the RIS report, is that the state of Michigan is looking for ways to close the border to Ontario's waste. It has implemented restrictions on the import of waste and is exploring more ways to keep the province's waste out of the state, including substantially increasing fees it charges on waste that crosses the border.
Private-sector businesses in Ontario generate 7.5 million tonnes per year of waste, of which 1.4 million tonnes are diverted and 6.2 million tonnes are disposed, says the study. Ontario sends about two million tonnes of industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) as well as construction and demolition (C&D) waste to the U.S., mainly to landfills in Michigan, although some goes to New York State. More than three million tonnes of waste are disposed of in private-sector landfills in Ontario, with the remainder sent to municipal landfills.
The study further notes that Ontario's 11 large private-sector landfills-most located in southwestern Ontario, with a few in the eastern region of the province-have a total permitted fill rate of 3.4 million tonnes per year. This is 2.8 million tonnes per year below the current IC&I disposal needs. In addition, a number of these landfills are due to close by 2009, further reducing annual capacity and worsening the shortfall.
Ontario's total permitted landfill capacity is presently estimated at 80 million tonnes, with municipal landfills accounting for about 42 million tonnes and private-sector sites making up the remainder. RIS notes that the total capacity is lower than previous estimates because of the elimination of the Adams mine site as a possible landfill disposal option.
Consequently, says the report, Ontario is experiencing a full-blown disposal capacity crisis and is managing it by exporting waste to the U.S. Although export to the U.S. has become an integral part of the province's waste management system, the unpredictable access to the U.S. disposal market, together with the lack of permitted disposal capacity in Ontario, is creating an unstable, unsustainable waste disposal system.
Dependence on waste export renders Ontario vulnerable to slowdowns at the Canada-U.S. border, says the report, noting that in the view of the waste management industry, September 11, 2001 was a "wake-up" call signalling this vulnerability when access to the U.S. is constrained. Border closings, delays at border crossings and inspections of Ontario waste crossing into the U.S. are already causing major problems for Ontario waste management companies and haulers.
The growing dependence on waste export has made transfer stations a more essential component in the IC&I waste disposal infrastructure. Their permitted operating terms and conditions vary, but the most critical one is the "in-out" limit. The majority (91) of Ontario's 112 transfer stations have limited themselves to 299 tonnes per day to save the time and expense of the environmental assessment required for any higher limit. However, notes the study, this restricts their capacity and flexibility in the event of slowdowns or closures at the U.S. border.
If the Canada-U.S. border were to shut down tomorrow, Ontario's waste management industry would have capacity to manage the situation for only two days. This, says the OWMA, would have profound impacts on public health and safety, the environment and the provincial economy, since there would be no way to safely dispose of the waste generated.
Moreover, even if the Ontario government put an integrated waste management plan in place tomorrow, the province would still be at risk of having nowhere to dispose of the waste that needs to be landfilled, in view of the fact that it typically takes about seven years to gain the necessary approvals for a landfill to begin operating. At this point, RIS notes, approvals are being sought for a further 61 million tonnes of landfill capacity, but it is not known when these approvals will be granted or denied. Some-not even involving new landfills, but expansions of existing operations-have been in the works for five years already, with no conclusion in view.
The study includes a review of waste diversion activities and their contribution to reducing the quantities of waste requiring disposal. In addition to more permitted landfill capacity, the study concludes that Ontario's environmental assessment and regulatory approvals process needs to be amended to enable efficient, timely approval of composting, transfer station and landfill capacity.
"Successive provincial governments have failed to plan for a comprehensive, integrated system of waste management, which certainly must include disposal as well as recycling and diversion programs," said Guilford. "The current government has a goal-though not a plan-to divert 60% of waste away from landfill, but that alone will not solve the problem." Waste management in Ontario, he said, is an infrastructure issue and needs to be treated as such.
"The OWMA strongly supports diversion efforts, but we need more than that. Our increasing population and economic growth will result in even more waste being generated, despite our best efforts at diversion.
"There is a critical need to dispose of our own waste in our own province, and that need is growing," Guilford continued. "We are calling on the provincial government to look at the entire waste picture and to develop an integrated, planned system of waste management instead of what we have now, which is a fragmented, stop-gap approach."
A public opinion survey commissioned by the OWMA and conducted by Ipsos-Reid last month found that: 73% of Ontarians believe the province is facing a garbage crisis; 61% disapprove of shipping garbage to Michigan; and 81% believe that managing and disposing of Ontario's non-recyclable garbage should be a priority for the provincial government.
More information is available from OWMA executive director Rob Cook, 905/791-9500, or Maria Kelleher, managing partner at RIS International, 416/482-7007, ext 21. The RIS report, "The Private Sector IC&I Waste Management System in Ontario," may be viewed on the OWMA Web site, www.owma.org.