HazMat Management - part of Ecolog Group Publications

Deep in the Dumps? How municipalities can avert a waste disposal crisis

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Courtesy of Courtesy of HazMat Management - part of Ecolog Group Publications

Municipalities across Canada are looking for economical and environmental methods to improve their waste management diversion methods. Some are scrambling to assess and extend landfill disposal capacity and others are trying to dramatically increase their diversion rates. Many are initiating a combination of strategies. Canada's largest city has arguably received the most attention with regard to its new waste management policies and Ontario is in a supposed waste disposal crisis.

In 2000, the City of Toronto issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a long-term waste disposal contract. The debate three years ago was whether to transport residential waste residues for disposal to the Adams Mine Landfill by rail or by truck to landfills in Michigan and/or Ontario.

As readers of this magazine know, Toronto decided to ship its residential waste residues to Michigan for disposal. As of the beginning of 2003, with the closure of Keele Valley Landfill, this represents approximately one million tonnes per year. Transfer vehicles haul the waste -- approximately 125 transfer trucks per day -- from seven transfer stations along Highway 401.

The debate about waste disposal, particularly in central Ontario, is far from over. The dialogue is focussed on: increased truck traffic leading to accidents and green house gas (GHG) emissions; Michigan (a bottle bill state) restricting specific waste materials; border closures to certain waste types (low level radioactive, blood, etc.); and, the Adams Mine Landfill, the so-called 'Ontario Solution.'

Most of the coverage focuses on pieces of the issue without a sound understanding of the current and future waste management system requirements that will ultimately lead to solutions. Let's consider a more comprehensive framework for the debate.

Ontario by numbers

The current population of Ontario is 12.2 million. Recent estimates of waste generation are just over 1.1 tonne per capita per year for residential, industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) waste. As a result, Ontario generates approximately 13.8 million tonnes of waste per year. The IC&I waste portion is estimated to be twice that of residential waste.

Various processes and activities currently divert an estimated 4.4 million tonnes, leaving the remaining 9.4 million tonnes for disposal. This represents average diversion rates of 35 per cent and 28 per cent for residential and IC&I waste respectively. Table 1 outlines waste disposal quantities (demand) by region in the province. It's clear from this table that the GTA produces the largest single portion of Ontario's waste (almost 45 per cent).

Disposal supply vs. demand

How does the disposal supply compare to the demand? Landfills are regulated based on Certificates of Approval (C of As). Modern C of As establish the total approved disposal capacity of a landfill and define the types of waste and area of waste receipt. Most municipally owned landfills service all solid non-hazardous residential waste generated in the municipality and potentially adjacent municipalities plus some IC&I waste. Private landfills are also regulated in a similar fashion but normally have larger 'regional' waste receipt areas, which may be larger for IC&I waste than residential waste. Most private landfills, and some municipal landfills, will also have a limitation on annual waste receipts. These service area and annual waste restrictions limit the usable disposal capacity in Ontario.

Waste management consulting firm Gartner Lee estimates that a total of approximately 6.4 million tonnes of solid, non-hazardous waste was disposed of in Ontario in 2002. The total approved usable disposal capacity currently in Ontario is estimated at 102.1 million tonnes. Table 2 describes the supply of annual disposal capacity and total approved capacity by region. This disposal capacity is provided by hundreds of landfills and one incineration facility. The majority of the usable capacity, in southern Ontario, is provided by about a dozen municipal and private landfills.

A comparison of supply and demand for disposal capacity (at a gross level) indicates that Ontario would appear to have a significant supply of disposal capacity -- more than a decade. At a regional level the GTA generates the most waste requiring disposal yet has the least approved disposal capacity. As well, a review of annual supply versus demand shows that Ontario has a shortfall of disposal capacity of approximately three million tonnes. As a result, it's clear that Toronto and other GTA municipalities have no choice currently but to export their waste for disposal. The only question is, where should GTA municipalities ship their waste? Currently, approximately three million tonnes of Ontario solid waste is exported to Michigan and New York.

Future solutions

This brings the debate back to the Adams Mine Landfill. This facility has received the major environmental approvals but has not been developed to receive waste. The disposal capacity potentially supplied is approximately 1.3 million tonnes per year with a total approved capacity of 20 million tonnes. (This capacity is not included in Table 2.)

The service area is for the entire province and all non-hazardous solid waste is acceptable for receipt. Although the Adams Mine Landfill, if brought on line, would reduce the gap between supply and demand, it would still leave 1.7 million tonnes annually without an Ontario disposal home. As well, the site would require a few years to develop.

Meanwhile, there's the argument that aggressive diversion plans should all but eliminate our future disposal requirements. Although it's clear that Ontario is moving towards significantly increased diversion levels (WDO formation and municipal initiatives such as Toronto Task Force 2010), both the population and economy are growing.

According to Environmental Strategies, a subsidiary of Gartner Lee, with aggressive diversion targets and strong population and employment growth the estimated annual demand for disposal capacity will remain relatively constant over the next 25 years at approximately 8.6 million tonnes with a cumulative disposal capacity requirement of approximately 214.5 million tonnes.

Clearly, the gap between supply and demand will continue into the foreseeable future, even with aggressive diversion programs. In the near term, a number of public- and private-sector landfill expansion proposals have been announced, or are well into the environmental approval processes. These include: Trail Road Landfill in Ottawa; Canadian Waste Services Warwick and Richmond Landfills; Green Lane Landfill; and Walker Industries East Landfill. These expansions, if approved, represent approximately 70 million tonnes of total capacity or two million tonnes of annual capacity.

Beyond these proposed projects, a number of central Ontario municipalities are starting planning processes to consider long term disposal capacity. These include Toronto, York, Hamilton, and Niagara. These municipal initiatives are including consideration of non-export options for disposal including energy-from waste or thermal treatment of waste with energy conversion. These initiatives are in line with the recommendations of the Central Ontario Smart Growth Committee.

The question that remains to be addressed is, does Ontario have a disposal crisis? There is clearly a gap between the province's current disposal supply and demand. The gap is now being filled by U.S.-based disposal capacity. As long as the U.S. border remains open to waste export, there certainly does not appear to be a crisis. However, what is the solution to Ontario's and, more specifically, the GTA's disposal gap?

In the short term, the alternatives are extremely limited. Options include removing restrictions on municipal and private sector C of As that could allow more disposal capacity for residential waste. But that will increase the export of IC&I waste to the U.S. The policy question to be addressed by the province is whether Ontario should find a home for disposal of its IC&I waste. As well, ongoing efforts to divert waste will have to continue to be a high priority.

A number of public and private sector initiatives now underway will result in approval and development of additional usable disposal capacity. This medium term disposal capacity will primarily be landfills located outside of central Ontario.

In the longer term, a number of public sector and public-private partnership initiatives may lead to additional disposal capacity with an increased proportion provided by thermal treatment of wastes. Portions of this new disposal capacity may even be located within the GTA. This should start to allow municipalities to manage more of their wastes within the region.

There has been talk of Ontario's waste disposal crisis since the 1980s. As we approach the end of this 20-year planning cycle, the crisis may finally be upon us. Perhaps it is already.

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