It's revolutionary, really. A city where all our organic waste goes not to the hilltops of a Michigan landfill but instead is spread idyllically over fields, gardens and lawns everywhere in the form of earth-nourishing compost. As it stands, having the local coon family rip into your leftovers after dark is one of the only ways to recycle our food. But come October, Toronto is bringing little green bins to hundreds of thousands of downtown homes and turning truckloads of rank muck into sweet, sweet compost. Trouble is, are we ready for it or are we just trading in our landfill shortage for a shortage of a different kind?
In a small seminar room out at Markham's Hilton Hotel, a few dozen bureaucrats, environmentalists and corporate reps have gathered for the Recycling Council of Ontario's May 5 conference to chat about the little green miracle of waste diversion.
After some celebratory pats on the back, a Toronto official takes the podium to give us the lowdown, green-bin-wise. The city, it turns out, is really pushing the envelope, drawing up one of the most inclusive lists of what's allowed in the green bin. Meat, kitty litter, popcorn bags, even diapers (with plastic liners removed) will all be allowed in. It's enough to make any backyard composter cringe.
But it's all part of the strategy to get user rates climbing. And so far, it seems to be working. Participation is at 90 per cent in Etobicoke and Scarborough, the first two GTA burbs to have the program. In fact, green bins are more popular than the city ever expected. Only trouble is, as Geoff Love of CSR (Corporations in Support of Recycling) explains when he takes the mike, there's a severe lack of facilities in southern Ontario that can take our green bin waste and whip it into compost. Which leads to his next question: "Are we trading a landfill capacity shortage for a compost facility shortage?"
Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning with Toronto's solid waste division, says we may be, but not yet. "We're ready for October. After that we'll have to be on top of the market to see if there's sufficient capacity to continue to add." Turns out York, which joins the green bin program along with the old city of Toronto this fall, tied up the last available facility.
But Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) argues we don't even have the capacity to manage what we're getting now, which is why we're sending trucks of organic waste hundreds of kilometres across the border to Quebec for processing - not the most eco-friendly solution.
Even more of a problem, adds Perks, is that after all the single-family homes get their bins in October, apartments, condos and any multi-family buildings will be left hanging. Will they have to wait 11 years to get a green bin as they did for the blue box?
"Because the city of Toronto hasn't planned well and never really believed we could capture astonishingly high volumes of organics, half the households in the city of Toronto don't have a start date for an organics program," says Perks.
"And for organic separation to work in the long term," explains TEA's senior campaigner, "it has to become a lifestyle, becoming universal throughout the community. If we learn that there are some places where it's OK to compost and others where it's not, we run into the same problem we have with some of the blue box material right now, which is that a certain amount (gets thrown) in the garbage."
Yes, Toronto has put out a call or tender to anyone willing to build a new or expand an old compost processing plant. But even if more facilities are built, environmentalists and conference participants are asking again and again: Will we have too much compost? Who will buy it? And where the hell are we going to put it all?
The answers so far are just as tentative as the answer to the facility shortage question.
"It's always a timing issue," says Rathbone. "We exhausted the demand for newspapers when we first got into the blue box, but now (that market) can't get enough." So far, he says, there is a market out there for all the compost the city is producing. At this point, it's sold mainly to landscapers.
And if it fails to make the agricultural (and even golf course) grade now, as it does, our compost might be kept even further from farmland when new more inclusive composting standards come into place in the province. The new regs, announced at the conference, will certainly please those who say Ontario's old ones were unnecessarily stringent and should have been harmonized with the rest of the country's long ago. But they might be harder to swallow for others who realize the new standards will mean more mercury from sources like tuna will be allowed in the mix, making it easier for meat-heavy urban compost to pass the bar.
Both municipal and provincial officials insist it's a good thing, that environmental standards are far from compromised and Ontario's standards were ludicrously high. Still, environmentalists are watching with concern.
Despite a few red flags, the green bin does signal the start of renewed vigour when it comes to recycling. In Etobicoke, blue bin rates are up a whopping 20 per cent since the introduction of the green bin. Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that the city cut regular garbage pickup to every other week and made blue, green and grey bin pickups weekly, forcing citizens to prioritize recycling over landfilling. Quite a progressive concept, really, and something you can expect to see in Toronto come fall. Along with a six-bag limit.
And just this week, city staff is asking council to consider making recycling mandatory (garbage bags would then be clear so the law could be enforced) to help us meet the province's 60 per cent waste diversion target.
So when it comes to the issue of shortages and shortfalls, even environmentalists like Perks are tempering their criticism. "Frankly," he says, "they're the kind of problems you like to have."