It’s Only Garbage if You Throw it Away

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

How in the world could Toronto even consider shipping its garbage 600 km. and throwing it in a hole??? What a waste!

This past week I have been drawn to Toronto City Hall like a fruit fly to a luscious banana peel. The whiff of garbage is in the air.

On Thursday night, an exciting, visionary discussion took place on the potential of turning a large portion of our garbage – really wasted resources – into methane gas for heating, and even cooling, downtown buildings. That would not only reduce our use of non-renewable energy sources like coal, it would create employment and wealth from what we now waste.

On Friday, committees of Council considered the recommendation from the administration to ship most of it up to Kirkland Lake and toss it into the abandoned Adams Mine for the next twenty years.

Deputations from up north urged councillors not to dump our problem into their laps. They vowed to fight the proposal “tooth and nail”. Others spoke of the opportunities for Toronto to show leadership while not jeopardizing the groundwater of communities in the vicinity of Kirkland Lake.

The “bury it” approach is a remnant from the last century, and it stinks. Garbage is only garbage when you mix it all together and mash it up in a truck. As a boy, I remember finding a discarded bicycle awaiting the garbage truck. I wheeled it home, and pumped up the tires. I had wheels! What a find! It wasn’t garbage at all.

Since then, my own garbage odyssey has taken me down many fascinating paths. In the late 1970’s, I founded one of Canada’s first curbside recycling operations, Vieilles Nouvelles / Old News, collecting old newspapers, bottles and cans, and other recyclables. In those days, old newspapers were burned or buried. Now they’re turned into cellulose insulation, or recycled into tomorrow’s tabloids.

With our recycled Canada Post truck, we combed the alleys of Montreal collecting wasted materials and speaking to citizens about better ways to handle our discards. Back then, our vision was idealistic. Who could have predicted the dramatic transformation that would follow in the next two decades, and the explosion of awareness and enthusiasm for recycling Canadian’s have shown?

At that time, I remember reading a small article about how worms could be used to recycle lettuce leaves and rotten fridge experiments. It seemed bizarre. In the intervening decades, backyard composting and indoor worm composting have become mainstream. Now I find myself as the Worm Man of Metro Hall, taking care of a giant indoor worm composter that recycles the food scraps from the building, including the food discards from the restaurants, and all the paper towels from the washrooms. It seems like alchemy how half a million slimy red wigglers transform rotting food scraps into valuable worm castings – the best soil supplement going.

Along the way, I spent a term as Edmonton City Councillor, passing many hours in council chambers discussing one of the most vexing of urban issues: garbage. My perspective has been that garbage is just mis-placed resources. In nature, garbage doesn’t exist.

Seven years ago, Edmonton faced a garbage crisis similar to Toronto’s. After years of looking for a “solution” to the garbage problem, and spending millions of dollars in a futile search to find a new dump site, we settled on a creative solution. Recently, Edmonton cut the ribbon on North America’s largest co-composting facility. Not only does it compost all of the household organics, it also handles all of the city’s sewage sludge.

Edmonton will soon become the only major Canadian city to far exceed the federal target of reducing the amount of garbage by 50%. Close to 70% will be recycled or composted. They’re even planning to establish a Centre of Excellence at their Waste Management Centre for teaching and research. Whither Toronto?

The garbage crisis Toronto faces is really an opportunity in disguise. Toronto can invest in exciting, innovative technologies and transform, like alchemy, much of the rotting heap of discards into methane gas to heat and cool downtown buildings while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving money. We could become world leaders in green energy production and waste transformation.

Next week I, like many others, will be watching closely to see how the Mayor and the Councillors vote. Will they have the vision to postpone the expensive, and unethical choice of sending trainloads of our garbage to our northern neighbours, and choose instead to invest in sustainable alternatives like methane digestion and composting?

Or will they throw away a golden opportunity?