Environmentalists Talking Rubbish About Garbage

By Brian Lee Crowley

   THROUGHOUT Atlantic Canada, cities and towns are all facing an increasingly intractable problem: What do we do with our garbage?

   The question is both understandable and necessary. Unfortunately, the sensible answers are not being heard. Instead, environmental zealots are saddling us with increasingly farfetched schemes for waste diversion and recycling.

   These schemes are costly and frequently of dubious environmental value. They do, however, create a wonderful industry for lobbyists, lawyers, “community activists” and others who make sensationalized environmental claims and then stampede governments into foolish policies.

   Solid waste disposal in our local communities is a wonderful case in point. To hear the environmental activists talk, we are facing a garbage crisis. There are no more landfill sites available. We are drowning in our own refuse. Diverting up to one-half of the waste stream through recycling and other high-cost strategies, plus a turning away from our consumer-oriented way of life is the only hope for salvation.


   Landfill space, like any other commodity, reacts to supply and demand. When there is a shortage, the price of tipping goes up, attracting new suppliers. Some years ago, for example, there was a shortage of landfill in the U.S. Northeast. One result was the famous voyage of the New York City garbage scow, The Mobra, looking for a place to dump a load of the Big Apple’s best.

   This short-term shortage of dump capacity was quickly remedied, to the point where there have been price-cutting wars among landfill operators trying to get new business.

   Where there are real and enduring shortages of space, this is due to environmental activists pressuring governments to set up regulatory obstacles to new sites. After all, conjuring up a shortage of dump space is good for the myth-makers of the environmental movement.

   Ponder this: A university economist in Washington State has calculated how much area would be occupied by Americans’ garbage if they keep producing it at the same rate for the next thousand years. The answer: a pile 100 yards high, occupying a grand total of 35 square miles. As American journalist John Tierney points out, that is equivalent to one-tenth of one per cent of the range land available for grazing in the U.S. It is a tiny fraction of our southern neighbour’s 150,000 square miles of parkland.

   Canada, of course, has one-tenth the population of the United States, and a lot more empty land. The notion that there is any kind of natural limit to our landfill capacity in this country is simply ludicrous.

   And in spite of what the environmentalists will try to tell you, a modern, well-run landfill is one of the most environmentally and economically sound ways of dealing with solid waste. It is certainly preferable to many of the alternatives – including most recycling – when all costs are factored in.

   Recycling, except in a few well-defined circumstances, produces gluts of poor-quality materials at very high cost, including the time and inconvenience of the average person separating their bottles, tins, newspapers and biodegradables. It may make some people feel virtuous, but it has little to do with saving the planet.

   The opponents of landfills are fond of another nonsensical argument: that each community must be self-sufficient in garbage disposal. It has become an unpardonable sin to suggest that our garbage might be shipped to another community, or to sparsely populated rural areas, because
this is somehow a kind of “dumping” of our dirt on innocent others.

   Well let’s think this through. Where do the things come from that we throw away? It’s certainly not all local. If you look in your garbage, you’ll find things like newsprint from Cape Breton, Styrofoam packaging from Japan, juice containers from Ontario, junk mail from everywhere, corn cobs from the American mid-west, wine bottles from Australia. Who decreed that because these products were consumed in Halifax or Moncton that the packaging had to be disposed of within the city limits?

   Many small communities could realize major economic benefits from striking deals with larger centres to take their garbage. The not-in-my-backyard syndrome would rapidly disappear if landfills were only located where a mutually beneficial bargain could be struck between the shipper and the receiver of the garbage.

   Communities interested in an increased tax base, some jobs, and perhaps a new rink or community centre could, subject to residents’ approval, put such bids on the table. The community that made the most reasonable offer, while maintaining appropriate site management standards, would be awarded the contract.

   Any Yorkshireman can tell you what many Canadians have forgotten: Where there’s muck, there’s brass. If we had more faith in our people, and left them freer to exchange muck for brass, we’d soon find our landfill problem isn’t so hard to solve after all.