Why garbage agency needs name change

Adams Mine 2

The Adams mine fiasco is a good example of what happens when you ask the wrong question at the very beginning.

The question the City of Toronto asked was: How do we get rid of our garbage? The answer was to dump it in a pit as the number one solution. As a secondary step, it was to reduce the amount dumped in a long-term, piecemeal approach.

The question that should have been asked was: How can we gain maximum advantage in dealing with our garbage?

Had this question been asked, the number one approach would have been to look for  integrated opportunities. For instance: turning garbage it into fuel for generating electricity, and for providing heating and cooling for downtown buildings; creating compost from garbage; adopting a more aggressive recycling program; exploring ways of requiring the packaging industry to reduce throwaway packaging; processing garbage in ways that reduce smog and greenhouse gases; and sending only a trickle of leftovers to the dump.

It’s not such a novel challenge to suggest that solutions are to be found in integration. The challenge is to lay the groundwork for it. It’s like building a house. If you want it to be environmentally sound, you begin by asking how you can take advantage of the sun’s solar power. If you get the house facing the wrong way, you’ll be forever handicapped.

The objective with integration is to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. For instance, about 40 per cent of Toronto’s garbage is organic, or capable of rotting. If it is used to create methane (a form of natural gas), a fuel is produced that can be used to generate electricity, and to heat and cool buildings. That’s integration.

But the process of decomposition in methane digesters will produce benefits above and beyond electricity, heating and cooling, and this is where the whole gets bigger than its parts:

•   Twenty per cent of Toronto’s target for reducing greenhouse gases could be reached. Producing electricity would reduce dependence on coal-fired generating plants. And using methane as a fuel, would avoid its release from a landfill as a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

•   Compost would be produced, which could be used to improve the fertility of soils. Compost returns carbon to soils. Fertile soil is about 50 per cent carbon in differing compounds. Soil without carbon is a desert.

•   Compost also helps soils retain moisture, and it improves porosity, allowing air into soils.

•   Compost returns nutrients to the soil, especially nitrogen. When nitrogen is returned in compost, it is organically bound in a way that ensures slow release. Chemical fertilizers supply nitrogen, but it’s not organically bound, and can be washed from fields in runoff, polluting lakes and streams by encouraging the growth of algae.

•   Finally, methane digesters kill pathogens — disease-producing organisms. Digesters are large vats in which garbage is decomposed. The vats are heated to speed decomposition, and the heat kills the pathogens.

It’s the ability of digesters to produce compost, and complete the nutrient cycle, that makes them so superior to incineration, which also creates energy from garbage. Incineration breaks the nutrient cycle. Instead of returning nutrients to the soil, it burns them.

Perhaps the death of the Adams Mine proposal will spur the city into a more integrative approach on waste issues. I hope so. It’s part way there already, council having ordered the Works Department to include funds in its budget for the construction of one digester, and to cooperate in the study of another with the company providing steam heating to the downtown area.

It would be especially nice to see a change in the name of the departmental agency that deals with garbage, since names so often reveal a mind set. The name currently is Solid Waste Management Services.

What a difference there might be if it were called Solid Waste Conversion Services. Then we’d be sure of the direction in which the city wanted to go.

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