betty disero is an unlikelygreen hero.In her 16 years as a city councillor, she hasn't exactly led the charge toward a more environmentally sustainable city.
Activists have been critical of Disero from the moment she failed her first green questionnaire in the 1985 city elections right up to last fall's yes vote for the Adams Mine dump.
And yet it was no surprise that last winter Mayor Mel named the one-time Toronto mayoral candidate co-chair of his waste diversion task force. That body was charged with fundamentally changing the way the city disposes of its garbage and ending our dependency on contentious and costly landfill sites.
Curly could trust the conservative Davenport councillor and works committee chair not to sell the store to the greens. In the mayor's mind, turning a banana peel into natural gas is fine as long as it doesn't cost the city a whole bunch.
Activists were skeptical. But Disero did her due diligence, hearing from all the stakeholders, from environmentalists to waste haulers.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, greens couldn't quite believe it when Disero and Curly announced an ambitious and unprecedented plan to divert all our waste from landfill -- that's right, 100 per cent -- by 2010.
Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) waste reduction campaigner Gord Perks was pleasantly surprised to find that Disero had even included some of his recommendations in the text of the task force report.
"Of all the processes the city has run that I've been involved in for 15 years, this one was run with the highest level of access to the decision-makers," says Perks.
Ironically, Perks figures that since Disero isn't considered a diehard environmental agitator on council, she's an ideal person at City Hall to steward this proposal. But can a fiscal conservative make a green city?
Councillor Jack Layton thinks so.
"I've been banging my head against a wall with this same proposal for seven years, and all I was able to get was a sore head," says Layton. "Having her, and the fact that she was appointed by the mayor, meant that Mel had to agree with what she came out with."
Finally, it seems, there's a broad enough coalition of support around the council chamber for a radically progressive plan to curb our wasteful ways.
But radical change doesn't come cheap. And judging by the fate of other ambitious environmental protection plans that have come out of City Hall lately, a council endorsement doesn't automatically mean money.
Ultimately, to get the mayor behind the plan when it goes to council for approval in September, Disero has to figure out a way to pay for collecting, sorting and diverting wet, dry and hazardous waste from all of the city's single-family homes by 2006 for less than the $52 per tonne the city now pays to truck its garbage to Michigan.
"People are looking for a little revolution but not one that's going to cost us an arm and a leg," she tells NOW.
After the Adams Mine fizzled, the mayor complained about going from $12 per tonne at Keele Valley to $52 in Michigan. Any form of recycling that was being discussed would have cost between $85 and $130 per tonne.
"I'm trying to get 85 down to 52," says Disero. "That's a little miracle that I want to try to work this summer."
To complicate matters, Disero needs to find $25 million in capital to pay for upgrades at the Dufferin Transfer Station that will enable the city to sort 70,000 tonnes of mixed waste by 2006. The facility will also house an anaerobic digester that will use the separated organic wet waste to produce natural gas.
As well, Disero needs another $40 million to pay for new trucks and curbside wet waste containers over the next four years.
Given the cash crunch at City Hall these days, that's no easy feat. So Disero has turned to the private sector.
The city is already under contract with Canada Composting Inc. and engineering design firm Stone & Webster to build a small demonstration anaerobic digester at Dufferin.
Layton has had discussions recently with Toronto Hydro about investing in the facility to offset the costs of the expansion. The city could repay the utility through the natural gas energy produced by the plant, he says.
Disero is also in discussions with local commercial garbage hauler Wasteco about using the extra wet waste capacity at Dufferin over the next few years before the city brings all single-family homes online. The tipping fees Wasteco would pay could also help offset the capital costs of the facility.
"I want somebody to pick up the slack," she says. "So why wouldn't I go to the private sector to see if they'll buy into it?"
Disero says the city can process wet waste for about $43 per tonne, including the built-in capital costs. But she's still got to find someone to take the separated dry waste off her hands for under $52 per tonne. She's approached Toronto-based Royal Plastics Group about taking the separated woods and plastics, which they could use to build consumer products.
As for the cost of the new bins, one option is to charge home owners directly. That was done successfully in Halifax, where the bins cost $80 each and homeowners were billed $8 every year for 10 years.
As ambitious as all of this is, it's only part of the 100-per-cent diversion equation. Next year the city also wants to start a voluntary "take it back" program with retailers that would accept used hazardous products like oil, paint and even needles. The program is already working in Ottawa, and Perks says TEA will spend the next couple of months looking for businesses to sign on.
As well as servicing single-family households, to get to 100-per-cent landfill-free by 2010, the city must also come up with a way to collect all these waste streams from apartment buildings, a much more complex and costly task.
Disero doesn't think she'll have any problem with fiscal conservatives on council who may squawk at the start-up costs. The woman who voted for the Adams Mine dump last fall because she feared "a massive lawsuit" from the mine owner and because she feels "really strongly that if you lead the private sector down the garden path, you've got to be prepared to follow through with it" is now calling for green leadership from her council colleagues.
Says Disero, "They have to be teachers and they have to learn how to be leaders, and they have to step up to the plate to do that."
We'll soon see how far Disero's new green leadership takes the city.