For an exercise designed to teach the city how to better manage its waste - both trash and biosolids - the conference last Thursday, May 12, at Metro Hall was one heck of a waste of time.
Noticeably absent from the pitch-fest co-hosted by the city and Environmental Business Consultants, were public servants vital to the discussion, including health experts who could persuade Toronto braintrusts how best to proceed with safe, sustainable waste management practices.
Instead, consultant after sales exec, equipped with spiffy PowerPoint presentations, spoke about how each possessed the more cost-effective and efficient technology in an outright money grab to dispose of our garbage and shit. Not since MFP has money this dirty been waved under city noses. (Hold the lawsuits, folks, I'm speaking metaphorically.)
Notable exceptions were the Toronto Environmental Alliance's Gord Perks and incineration foe and chemistry prof Paul Connett from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Connett pointed out that safety reports on waste management facilities would be unnecessary if the city dealt with waste at the front end of the stream - like in the bathroom with biofriendly toilets.
But they were drowned out by sales pitches offering the latest and greatest advances in technology, like tunnel composting, waste-to-energy plants, even best practices for a public-private facility.
Taking all this in were Councillors Sandra Bussin and Paula Fletcher, who had heard just the night before that their respective constituents in Beaches and South Riverdale - site of a proposed shit incinerator and former locale of an old trash one - have higher mortality rates from circulatory and respiratory infection than comparable communities.
Ministry of the Environment technology standards manager John Mayes warmed the beds for the incineration-happy Europeans by saying he believes incinerators can be designed to be safe.
Bussin, who weeks earlier had agreed to introduce two lunchtime keynote speakers, turned turd herself by backing out after reading an advance copy of a speech by the first speaker, environmental engineering consultant Jack Lauber, former chief of technology assessment for the New York State department of environmental conservation.
Her copy of the presentation was marked with red ink underlining views she could not stomach, like "We now see actual particulate emission standards that are extremely low, some at non-detectable levels, values that we dreamed of years ago."
(Another, um, entertaining passage reads, "Some environmentalists, who believe that all waste combustion is unsafe, say, 'The devil burns and the Lord recycles.'
Perhaps these negative references to waste burning come from the Bible and the original definition of Hell.")
That's not to say the day lacked useful lessons. Connett played the macroeconomic card. "[Incineration] is a waste of time. It's a waste of money, a wasted opportunity. It will cost a fortune, and half the money will go to air pollution control equipment. It's a 20-year investment, but it creates very few jobs. Most of the money, and this is key, will go into complicated machinery, and it will leave the country."
Dutch consultant Edward Pfeiffer, spending his second day in Toronto, played travel critic, beginning his presentation by brandishing a soap bar pilfered from the Holiday Inn, an apparent contradiction, he said, to the hotel's policy of waste reduction. When I requested an interview later in the day, he turned the tables by asking me the first question. Pointing his empty styrofoam coffee cup toward a garbage can next to a recycling bin, he asked, "Where do I throw this?"
When I mumbled, "Garbage?" he smiled and shook his head. "Not in the Netherlands."
Ditto for the paper plates offered next to the washable lunch utensils. And the shower without flow control at the Holiday Inn.
He says one of the biggest differences between the Netherlands and Canada is that spending on the environment there is about five times greater than on health care. "Working on the environment, investing in the environment with a proper budget, also improves the health of people."
This topic was never broached during the conference. Rather, it was a business meeting with business interests working toward fulfilling business objectives. As Bussin wryly noted, "I think it's very good for the Netherlands to come here to try to rustle up some business."
No doubt some from this gabfest took off for the airport with visions of contracts dancing before their eyes. If they were to leave without any business, wouldn't that be a waste?