Ontario’s large cities may be left scrambling to find space for their garbage because of new legislation that makes it harder to build landfills in the province.
The Ontario government passed the rule in July as part of Bill 197, the omnibus COVID-19 economic recovery legislation. The amendment to the Environmental Assessment Act gives the power to local municipal councils to approve or reject new landfills, or landfill extensions that are up to 3.5 kilometres outside their municipal boundaries.
This means a new landfill now needs the councils of multiple municipalities to support it, in addition to going through the existing environmental assessment process.
The change is a big win for a coalition of small towns across Ontario that’s been calling for more say over landfill development in or near their communities. But the province has now left larger cities such as Toronto, which use landfills far outside their municipal boundaries, with a looming challenge of finding a place for their garbage.
“I understand giving a voice to local municipalities, but at the same time you can’t paralyze the waste management system and the ability of private property or public property to be sold,’ said Coun. James Pasternak, chair of Toronto’s infrastructure and environment committee.
“I think it’s also important for municipalities to understand that landfill is not necessarily always a bad thing. Landfill is an economic opportunity. It employs dozens, if not hundreds of people. It generates a high level of commercial property tax. It usually has spinoff industries. It does have its benefits.”
New landfills in Ontario can take 10-15 years to get approved and built. Staff at a recent Toronto city council meeting said that the city’s main landfill, the Green Lane Landfill outside London, Ont., has 14-16 years before it reaches capacity. The Ontario Waste Management Association, which represents waste management companies and municipalities, estimated similarly that the province will reach its landfill capacity by 2032 — 12 years from now.
Given the amount of time it takes to get new landfills built, that means that landfill operators and cities have to propose new landfills in the coming months to ensure they come online before the province runs out of space, industry players say.
“The reality is, is that landfills are strategic pieces of infrastructure that need to have a level of central co-ordination,” said Steven Crombie, manager of policy and research at the Ontario Waste Management Association.
“If we give each township in the province of Ontario a veto power on a landfill, even in their own neighbour’s backyard, we can’t reasonably, with any certainty, be able to predict that we’ll even approve any more landfills.”
Landfill project ‘extraordinarily challenging’
Crombie said that the association would have liked the provincial environment minister to have ultimate approval authority over landfills, while including a big — but not final — say for local municipalities.
A major landfill project in Zorra, Ont., about 160 kilometres west of Toronto, is now left in the lurch because of the legislative change. The landfill site is about eight years into its approvals process.
“On the ground, it’s extraordinarily challenging because having multiple municipalities agree on most anything is challenging,” said Geordie Walker, president of Walker Industries, the company proposing the landfill.
“But on something as controversial as landfills can be, it really makes it very challenging.”
Critics have raised environmental concerns related to landfills, particularly with respect to possible groundwater contamination. It’s a concern that Calvin Lakhan, a waste researcher at York University, can understand.
“There’s a lot of safeguards put in place to mitigate or completely avoid a lot of the environmental hazards that landfills could pose. With that being said, there is a very long … history of landfills, actually, despite being built to these standards, for whatever reason, have failed.” Lakhan said.
Lakhan said that while unforeseen failures mean landfills are not 100 per cent risk-free, the need for landfills means some amount of risk has to be accepted.
“People just have to recognize there’s an inherent risk to any sort of environmental facility, whether that be a landfill or a tire site, that could cause damage. But that whole concept of, ‘I don’t want it at all because of the infinitesimally small risk,’ it just puts you at a gridlock or deadlock, because we need to put it somewhere.”
But rules that on paper appear to help municipalities may have unintended consequences, according to Myra Hird, a waste management expert at Queen’s University. Hird’s research includes studying how solving one problem in the complex waste management system can lead to different problems in another part of the system.
“Some communities very much need that source of revenue. And so they, for financial reasons, are willing to take other communities’ waste. And communities only do that when they are under financial stress, and they need that revenue,” Hird said.
“It could very much lead to a two-tier system where affluent communities will be able to say no and poorer communities will not have the financial luxury to say no.”
Alternatives, such as incinerating garbage, come with their own challenges, according to Hird. Incineration plants, which are popular in some European countries and Japan, produce fly ash that is extremely toxic and needs to be landfilled itself.
Ultimately, the solution to the landfill shortage may be to put less garbage into landfills annually and thereby extend their lives. The last major landfill site near Toronto, Keele Valley, closed in 2002 after Ontario extended its life multiple times. A lobbying effort by local residents finally convinced the province to close it.
Mario Ferri was an organizer in the effort to close the landfill, and he is today the deputy mayor of the City of Vaughan and a regional councillor for York Region, which is north of Toronto. He said that there is a need for landfill space in the province, but it has to be balanced with the rights of municipalities that host them.
Since the Keele Valley closure, Ferri said York Region has pursued an aggressive strategy to divert more waste away from landfills. York Region has a waste diversion rate of 68 per cent, compared to the City of Toronto, which is at 53 per cent.
“I live within a kilometre of Keele Valley, and I know the impact that that had on me personally and my family with a thousand trucks rummaging through our community every day for 20 years,” Ferri said.
“You know, that experience makes me want to advocate a much fairer [process] and assuring that where the site is located, that it doesn’t do harm to our environment.”