Everybody eats, everybody poops, but that doesn't mean the waste-saturated city has figured out what to do with these unpopular bio-leftovers.
Last month, 200 South Riverdale residents meeting at Eastern Avenue's Toronto Fire Academy were stunned to learn officials have put incineration at the top of a new list of disposal options.
Works department reps are pitching a report by KMK Consultants singing the praises of a new European-style low-emission plant at Ashbridges Bay. It's a little eerie, since David Miller, who took the mayor's chair on an anti-incineration program, is supporting the process of discussion this report has unleashed.
Many believed belching, burning waste facilities were defunct in this city, but it seems newfangled tech approved by the European Union has reopened the issue yet again. The question now becomes, should we trust the new incinerating science or is it the same old lung-clogging, food-fouling option?
How officials ended up in an incineration rethink has to do with the mountain of shit that is overtaking the city and the debacle of pelletization.
That process has had more blockages than a public toilet. The idea was to make pellets or a cake-like substance from most of T.O.'s 65,000 annual tonnes of treated sewage and sell the nitrogen-, phosphorus- and potassium-rich effluvia for farmers' fields or land rehab. Leftovers would be trucked to Michigan.
Of course, poop also contains mercury, lead and arsenic, thanks to all the nasty stuff dumped down sewers and toilets. Then there's the fact that pellets are spontaneously combustible. A whole field of them smouldered and burst into flames in July 2003, a month before a fire knocked the $23-million pelletizer at Ashbridges Bay off-line.
The facility is about a year from being operational again, and as a result, almost all of the 50,000 tonnes that goes through Ashbridges Bay each year has been trucked stateside, filling 20 of the almost 150 trucks heading south each day.
But the city has a card up its sleeve: the mediator's report from the 1998 environmental assessment set up to look at concerns around the old incinerating plant at Ashbridges Bay. The report said the city would not reconsider incineration - but a clause allowed for incineration to be revisited provided there was a "comprehensive plan" (like the KMK report), and a class environmental assessment will be done if the report is approved by city council.
"The world has changed, and unfortunately I can't ignore that," says wastewater services director Lou Di Gironimo, referring to how the Walkerton water scandal, among other things, has made smearing treated sewage on farm fields a less attractive option.
What has not changed is the fact that incinerators still pollute.
The new tech, unlike the six previous multiple-hearth incinerators at Ashbridges Bay, mixes a layer of sand with de-watered sludge. At high temperatures, this mixture becomes "fluidized" and is burned. Scrubbers catch toxins going up the stack, thus minimizing emissions.
Minimizing, but not eliminating. Says Shelley Petrie of Toronto Environmental Alliance, "There's a lot of opportunity in the burning process for things to go wrong. Emissions may disappear to the eye, but they'll never disappear completely."
That's the view of Philip Knox, co- chair of the Neighbourhood Liaison Committee for the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant. He compared the projected emissions from the updated incinerator with levels in the area since the last facilities were shut down in 2002 - zeros across the board. Why should we accept any emissions, he asks, when residents have gone all this time with no pollution at all?
According to the KMK report, compared the old models, the new fluidized-bed incinerator shows reduced emissions for 18 of 22 volatile organic compounds and metals. But the toxins that show higher emissions are chloroform, lead and nickel (all known carcinogens), while mercury, which causes neurological impairment, rose six times.
Incineration critics are certainly not impressed. Says Paul Connett, chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University and a world-famous expert on the tech, "There is no question that the incineration industry has improved its operations, but they have done this on the fly, with local residents as the guinea pigs. Incinerators are unsustainable at a time when we desperately need sustainable solutions."
Ward 30 councillor and works committee member Paula Fletcher sees it similarly. She's pressing for three key Toronto public health studies - a review of the Ashbridges Bay pellets on city land, a review of the emissions modelling at Ashbridges Bay and an epidemiological study of the Beaches and South Riverdale neighbourhoods before and after the original incinerators were shut down. But she's feeling cynical. Incineration, she says, is a done deal - KMK's history with previous clients like Peel and Durham means Toronto is virtually fated to sign on as well. "There's a pattern in the GTA, a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says unhappily.
Deputy mayor Sandra Bussin, vice-chair of the works committee, also wants to delay the next review of the plan pending the three studies. "City staff are looking for quick, easy solutions," she says.
Nancy Fleming of wastewater services disagrees. The incinerator proposal, she says, is the most cost-effective option, with the benefit of lower emissions and reduced truck traffic. But the city "is not building it tomorrow." Fleming adds that an environmental assessment has to be done even if the works department and city council pass the plan, and the EA will look further into alternatives to an incinerator.
She says this facility, with a projected cost of $245 million over the next 20 years, would be a contingency to prevent poop buildup in case any of the other options fails. Surely, I ask, at this cost, the facility cannot be built to sit idle? "Yes, it can," she answers.
But the mayor's spokesperson, Patchen Barss, says, "If we spend that kind of money on a technology, surely we're going to use it. We will treat any new technology with incredible skepticism and caution, and will not implement a solution that is not environmentally sound."
Still, he stops short of reassuring us that the mayor will stand by his promise to nix incineration. "We have to look at all the options."
This has disappointed Marilyn Churley, MPP for Toronto-Danforth and the environment critic for the NDP. "Given the history of the problems in the east end, incineration is not a viable plan. People of the east end do not want any more combustion. The city should just stop it in its tracks right now."
Councillor Jane Pitfield, chair of the works committee, isn't ready to close any doors. "I do feel that we have to come to grips with a decision. It may not be incineration. I'm personally open-minded to at least exploring everything and then disqualifying things one by one."
She considers those totally against incinerators closed-minded and has a warning to councillors representing the area: "It's important to give good leadership, and good leadership is not fear-mongering."
Time is ticking, and when the clock stops there will be a major poop (and garbage) backup, as evidenced when the border was closed for 18 hours in May 2003 at the height of the mad cow scare. But strangely, many incineration opponents seem pretty soft on some rather unattractive alternatives. Knox of the Neighbourhood Liaison Committee says he doesn't have a problem with using bio-solids on agricultural land, and TEA's Petrie declares landfilling the best of the worst options.
But after years of eco-design efforts, surely there must be a green way to use human waste. Connett believes solutions appear naturally once you deal with disposal at source and separate household discharges from industrial ones. "If we did this, we could use the nutrients in organic sludge on farmland and close the loop. We have to grow up as a civilization."
Petrie favours preventative solutions like the "living' technology that some small suburban companies have adopted on-site to naturally filter waste through an ecological system, like the one at the Kortright Centre for Conservation, where solids end up in a wetland and are cleaned by plants and the leftover water by UV light.
"It does an excellent job," says Alex Waters, manager of the centre. "The bacteria level at the end of the system is quite low," though he does say the system hogs a lot of energy.
Still, ecologists could well ask why governments aren't experimenting with pilot projects of this kind, or supporting use of composting toilets like those sold by Clivus Multrum or Sun-Mar. They range from $1,135 to $1,990 for the systems and about $300 for the toilets.
In these plastic units, the waste collects in chambers at the bottom of the toilet and is dried for compost use without ever mixing with chemicals from industrial waste.
True, the need for a vent makes the tech difficult for adaptation to apartment buildings, and there are other logistical and psychological hurdles to overcome.
But isn't it time, as ecologists have always said, to see our bodily waste as the treasure it really is? Says Connett, "It doesn't make sense to spend so much money destroying resources we should be sharing with the future. "