Waste land, Part 2: What happens after you take out the trash

ANALYSIS: Garbage doesn’t just go straight from the curb to the dump. And recycling doesn’t simply get recycled. Your black bags and blue bins take a longer journey than you may think
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 18, 2019
In 2015, the average waste-diversion rate for municipalities across Ontario was 47 per cent. (iStock.com/shaunl)

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This is Part 2 of a three-part TVO.org series on waste collection in Ontario. Click here for Part 1. Watch for Part 3 on Thursday.

When I was a child, I had a fascination with heavy machinery and vehicles. I remember sitting in our living room, watching the garbage truck rumble up to our house. One man would be driving; another would be hanging onto the back to the truck — that was very dangerous, I thought. There’s no way my parents would ever let me do something like that!

At every house, the man at the back would hop down, grab the bags that had been left out, hurl them into the back of the garbage truck, and then hop back up. The truck would move on. On a very good day, I’d get to watch as the truck got full and the man at the back flipped a switch, causing the truck’s hydraulic-driven blades to crush all the waste into a compact mass, leaving room for more bags. Once it was full, young Matt assumed, it would drive to a dump and deposit all the crushed waste in a gigantic pit before heading back out to pick up more.

My understanding of how waste collection worked remained basically unchanged for the next two decades or so. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I realized it was much more complicated than that — and then only because my father was co-owner of a waste-management company.

As I noted in Part 1 of this series, Ontarians throw out a lot of stuff every year — a lot. We’re talking enough waste to outweigh the Hoover Dam or a fleet of warships. The daily task of collecting all this waste is a massive logistical effort, requiring thousands of trucks operating along carefully selected routes that have been designed for maximum speed and fuel efficiency. But the system is more complicated than I’d imagined — and much more efficient.

Waste-collection trucks are enormous, complicated machines. They are designed for one job: transporting the maximum amount of internal cargo at low speeds while making frequent stops, and crushing that cargo into a more compact form when necessary to load more. They are not long-range, high-speed vehicles. So when trucks are full of waste, rather than hauling their loads to dump sites — many of which are located well outside the city or town in question — they instead travel to a specialized facility and dump their loads there.

I’ll pick up the narrative of what happens next in just a moment. Right now, I need to confess something. Above, I’ve been very careful to use the generic term “waste.” Normally, I’d try to avoid repetitive word usage (and my editor would no doubt prefer that), but, in this case, the terminology matters, a lot. Because what happens to waste that gets picked up very much depends on what kind of waste we’re talking about.

Let’s start with the most basic variety of waste: trash, miscellaneous garbage in black plastic bags or loaded loosely into cans or bins. Municipalities all over the province, motivated mostly by concern for the environment but also by economic factors I’ll get into later, have been trying to reduce the amount of trash that Ontario generates. We’re asked to put our recyclable materials into specific bins (usually blue), our organics into others (usually green), and our yard waste (think fallen leaves and grass clippings) into big paper bags.

This sorting, done at the household, business, or institution level, is collectively referred to as “diversion” — we are diverting waste away from landfills. The City of Toronto claims a diversion rate of 52 per cent, according to numbers provided to TVO.org by a city spokesperson. Ottawa claims 44 per cent. London claims 45 per cent and has a plan to increase that to 60 per cent by 2022. In 2015, the provincial average was reportedly 47 per cent.

But some of our waste is still just old-fashioned trash, the kind destined for landfills or incinerators. The fleets of garbage trucks bring their loads of trash to facilities known as transfer stations. The term is apt — the garbage trucks dump their compacted masses of trash into the stations, where crews use heavy moving equipment to transfer them to truck trailers. Those trucks, unremarkable 18-wheelers, carry the trash to its final destination, where it is burned or buried. The garbage trucks, once again empty, return to their routes.

It sounds simple in practice, but the effort is complicated and essential. Transfer stations must be carefully located. They are noisy, busy, and smelly places, so cannot be adjacent to residential communities. But they also need to be proximate enough to the customers to make it easy for the garbage trucks to enter quickly, dump their accumulated trash, and then return to service in the nearby communities. Transfer stations are owned either by local municipalities or private companies. Companies often dump at transfer stations owned by competitors — they simply pay a weight-based fee to do so. Larger companies often try to internalize the cost of operating a transfer station by building their own in areas where they operate, but, in the absence of one, they will happily pay a competitor to dump at theirs.

That’s how trash is handled: you put it on your curb, a garbage truck picks it up and eventually dumps it at a transfer station, and, while that garbage truck returns to making pickups along its route, larger cargo vehicles carry the waste away for permanent disposal.

Now let’s talk recycling.

Recycling and trash are picked up in much the same way. The trucks are sometimes a little bit different, but the concept is similar: trucks pick it up from bins that are curbside or behind buildings and transport it to a local facility. But there’s a huge difference between trash and recycling. Trash is a burden. It’s a cost for governments and private-sector consumers. It’s something that we simply must deal with, and municipalities have pursued different options in their never-ending quest to find the most efficient method.

Recyclables, though, are something else. Recyclables are a commodity. What you leave at your curb can be sold to the highest bidder.

The reality is more complicated than this. We’ll get into that in Part 3. But, for our purposes, let’s assume an ideal scenario. Recycling trucks arrive at the central facility, known as a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF, and deposit their collected loads. The recyclable material is then sorted: paper products are separated from glass; plastics are separated from metals. The process is partially automated, but a human workforce plays a vital role. Some of the material is contaminated and therefore unusable. A pizza box, for instance, is absolutely recyclable, unless it has absorbed too much grease. Then it becomes trash. Certain kinds of plastic can’t easily be recycled; those products are also trash. Many of the problems with sorting reflect the public’s ignorance and/or laziness: when municipalities audit what’s actually being thrown out as trash, they often find that huge quantities of so-called garbage could indeed be diverted. The same problem exists in reverse at sorting facilities, which must constantly deal with materials that should not have been put in blue bins in the first place.

Once this ideal hypothetical sorting process is complete, the MRF has generated two broad categories of material: trash that will be transported to an incinerator or dumping site, and commodities fit for sale. The latter are not likely to fetch a high enough price to actually turn recycling into a profit generator. But they certainly can help defray the costs of operating the collection program, something that cannot be said of trash collection. With garbage, we may as well be incinerating or burying cash along with the trash.

Garbage and recyclables constitute the bulk of the material that must be collected in Ontario — but not the totality. It’s worth noting, just for the sake of completeness, that organic waste is typically allowed to compost in a controlled fashion; some of the gaseous byproducts are fed into the natural-gas grid or used to generate electricity onsite. Collected yard waste is turned into compost. And, of course, there are many classes of waste that I have not really addressed here, such as hazardous chemicals, radioactive materials, and medical waste, which requires careful disposal to avoid disease transmission. Electronics and used tires constitute other kinds of waste that must be handled using specific procedures and care.

This should give you a general sense of what happens when your waste is picked up from the curb or from your condo’s loading area. There is an entire middle step in the process: specialized technologies and workforces operate quietly behind the scenes to process the waste we generate each day.

But, as I said, this is a hypothetical ideal scenario. The reality is increasingly complicated — and, in Ontario, fraught. I’ll explain why in Part 3.

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