Waste land, Part 1: It’s time to talk trash in Ontario

ANALYSIS: Most people take municipal trash collection for granted. But it’s a complex and critical business — and the health of the planet partly depends on what we put in the ground
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 17, 2019
According to Statistics Canada, the province of Ontario generated 9,475,472 tonnes of non-hazardous waste in 2016. (Dominic Chan/CP)

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This is Part 1 of a three-part TVO.org series on waste collection in Ontario. Watch for Part 2 on Wednesday.

I wish I could remember who told me this — the words have stuck with me, but not who spoke them. Whoever it was, he noted that, if you were to fall through a portal and travel back in time, when you emerged and beheld history, it wouldn't be the sights and sounds that would convince you that you'd really gone into the past. It would be the smell.

The stench, to be more specific.

The past stank. A lot of the smells were what we'll delicately call "human" in nature. Regular bathing started becoming common in North America only around the middle of the 19th century (soap took longer to catch on). Flush toilets and sewage systems to transport the waste away from populated areas began to emerge around the same time. But much of the stench was produced by rotting trash — household waste thrown onto the streets because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it. While it's true that many civilizations throughout the ages have established designated dumping areas, historical accounts make clear that, for most of human history, we tended to just dump our trash outside and hope it would go away.

The roots of municipal trash collection can be traced back to Roman times; British “rakers” tried to prevent the spread of the Black Death by clearing streets during the Middle Ages. But waste management, as we know it today, began emerging near the end of the 19th century. Urbanization had packed so many people into cities that, if trash were not collected and hauled away for disposal before it could accumulate, disease was virtually guaranteed. Those teams of men following behind horse-drawn carts eventually evolved into the massive, highly specialized vehicles that we — and the multi-billion-dollar municipal-waste-collection sector — count on today.

In historical terms, this is a blink of an eye. But, like so many other things that are relatively recent in our history, municipal trash collection is simply taken for granted and barely thought of at all. In my neighbourhood, the trash is collected (early!) every other Thursday morning; recycling, on the other Thursday mornings; and organics, every Thursday. For most citizens, a once-weekly dragging of a few bins to the curb and back is the extent of their contact with this little-appreciated, highly complex, and absolutely vital part of our daily lives.

You don't have to think about municipal waste services much — that's the beauty of them — but you'd miss them if they were gone. And fast. (Toronto had a taste of this during the 2009 municipal workers’ strike, when trash piled up everywhere — the strike is often identified as a contributing factor in the election, the very next year, of populist mayor Rob Ford.)

This week, TVO.org is taking a close look at climate change and how the issue affects Ontario. Over the next few days, I’ll be making the case that, while much of the world’s attention is focused on the issue of what’s going into our atmosphere, we’re arguably not paying nearly enough attention to what goes into the ground. And the two have more to do with each other than you might realize.

First, though, there are two things I must declare. Readers should know that, for some years, my father’s business involved waste management and the complicated logistics that surround it. This has given me a rare look deep inside an industry that’s vastly more interesting than people typically realize. My father remains active in related ventures, but, to be clear, I have no financial stake in any of what I’ll be addressing in this series (though I obviously wish him much success!). The second involves the fact that waste management is a municipal-level service, and communities in this province have different systems and needs. Addressing the specifics of more than a few of them is beyond the scope of this project, which will, of necessity, focus on larger jurisdictions and address the topic in general terms.

That being said, there’s no better place to start than by establishing a big-picture sense of how massive a logistical effort waste management truly is. And you’ll be shocked by how big these big-picture numbers are.

Statistics Canada tracks the amount of waste collected by each province and updates the numbers every other year. (Helpfully, the totals include waste that is shipped out of the original province for processing or disposal elsewhere — that will become important later in the series.) The 2018 numbers have not yet been published, but, in 2016, the province of Ontario generated 9,475,472 tonnes of non-hazardous waste.

That is a gigantic number, so big it’s hard to put into meaningful perspective. But let’s try: the Hoover Dam weighs 6 million tonnes. So Ontario is generating approximately 1.5 Hoover Dams’ worth of waste every year. A United States Navy Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier weighs approximately 91,000 tonnes. So Ontarians are throwing out more than 100 Nimitz-class carriers each year. Only 10 were ever built.

This next one is complicated, but bear with me: an Olympic-size swimming pool holds 2,500,000 litres of water. A litre weighs roughly 2.2 pounds. That’s 5.5 million pounds of water per pool, or 2,494.76 tonnes. That means that Ontarians are throwing out, every year, an amount of waste comparable in weight to the water you’d drain from 3,798 Olympic-size pools.

Okay, one more (last one, I promise). The average Canadian man weighs 187 pounds; the average Canadian woman, 155. I averaged those two numbers to come up with an imperfect average Canadian weight: 171 pounds. (Yes, I know the sexes are not an even 50-50 split; I’m just making a point.) The 2018 estimate of Ontario’s population — 14,320,000 — allows us to calculate a rough weight for all the people in Ontario: 2,448,720,000 pounds, or 1,110,722 tonnes. In other words, every Ontarian throws out roughly nine times their body weight each year.

The above numbers were, admittedly, an indulgence on my part — but I hope they were illustrative. Ontarians throw away a massive quantity of stuff, stuff of all kinds, every year. This includes the trash we put in garbage bags, the recyclable materials we toss into blue bins, our green-bin organic waste, and other miscellaneous materials, including yard waste and excess building materials from construction sites, to cite two examples out of thousands.

What do we do with it?

Where it actually ends up is a complicated question — one we’ll tackle later on in the series. For now, let’s just focus on the first step: how we pick it up. The short answer: through a massive logistical effort.

Consider my hometown of Toronto. Toronto is an interesting case — in some parts of the city, much of the waste collection is done by city staff. In others, the task has been contracted out to private companies (more on that in a minute). But, just within the city’s area of responsibility, it fields a fleet of roughly 170 waste-collection trucks (those figures courtesy of the City of Toronto). In addition to houses, the city is also responsible for 10,000 trash cans in city parks and almost as many along streets. Then there’s the fact that the city handles approximately 1,000 special events per year that require post-event cleanup. Anyone who has ever spent more than a few minutes standing around after an event ends knows what happens: a small army of people with plastic bags moves through collecting all the discarded beverage cups, pizza boxes, cigarette butts, and other assorted bits of litter left behind by the crowd. Trucks then haul those bags away. Almost all this work happens behind the scenes, but it’s essential.

To return to the complicating factor alluded to above: some waste collection is fully public; some is contracted out by municipalities to private companies; and some is entirely private. For most of us, waste collection is something that just happens every week or two. But for the many private companies and institutions that produce vast amounts of waste, it’s something that requires specific arrangements. Think of the thousands of dumpsters in alleys and behind strip malls across your hometown. Those dumpsters may be emptied by municipal workers, but they’re most likely handled by private companies that come by to collect as often as is necessary. And then there are the large institutions — schools, hospitals, office buildings, universities. Each one throws stuff out every day.

As I noted above, this is just a general overview. Each municipality has its own arrangements, as do countless private businesses within those municipalities. If nothing else, consider this piece a primer on just how much effort is required to make the waste you put by the curb or toss into the bin behind your work go away.

We’ll take a closer look at precisely where it all goes in Part 2.

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