COVER

THE THROW-AWAY SOCIETY

BARBARA WICKENS September 5 1988
COVER

THE THROW-AWAY SOCIETY

BARBARA WICKENS September 5 1988

THE THROW-AWAY SOCIETY

COVER

Rancher Stanley Rowe is deeply involved in the booming tourist industry in the rugged southern Cariboo country of British Columbia’s Interior. But the 58-year-old Rowe says that he is concerned about the potential threat that a project near the small community of Cache Creek poses to his business. There, 18 km from his Sundance Guest Ranch, the city of Vancouver plans to build a $20-million toxic waste incinerator. That plan has generated bitter controversy in and near the small town—but 60 per cent of those who voted approved the dump site in a municipal survey on the issue last May. In return, the city of Vancouver,

200 km to the southwest, will pay the municipality a negotiated fee. But Rowe could not register his opposition because local officials used a voters’ list that omitted many residents of the Cache Creek area—an exclusion that still angers him. Declared Rowe: “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, but it should be with the consent of the majority of the people who will be affected by it.”

Flaring: The friction generated by the Cache Creek dump site is representative of current waste-related controversies that are flaring across Canada—and around the world. Until recently, Canadian householders in towns and cities had little reason to be concerned with the garbage problem. Instead, they simply placed refuse on the curb—in the full knowledge that municipal garbage collectors would whisk it away to a dump site.

But an incident that began in March, 1987, dramatically illustrated the disposal problems that now confront many U.S. and Canadian cities.

At that time, a barge loaded with 3,000 tons of New York City trash spent 23 weeks at sea—turned away at several ports—as it sought to unload its cargo. In the end, a Brooklyn incinerator agreed to burn the garbage.

At the same time, the stockpiles of radioactive waste at many nuclear power plants underline the fact that industrialized countries are also producing growing amounts of extremely hazardous waste. And experts say that the current methods of dealing with waste— recycling, incineration and dumpingall have drawbacks.

Landfill specialists say that it is difficult to estimate the total amount of garbage that Canadians generate each year. But even the partial figures that are available depict growing mountains of disposed material. For one thing, David Campbell, a senior project engineer with Environment Canada’s waste management division, estimated that Canadian mining operations alone generated 600 million tons of rubble each year. The country’s industries produce another 60 million tons of refuse.

Sludge: According to Campbell, towns and cities across Canada pick up 13 million tons of trash each year. And

the nonprofit environmental group Pollution Probe estimates that in Metropolitan Toronto, disposable diapers alone account for 25,000 tons of the 3.4 million tons of garbage that the region produces each year. Similarly, while 500,000 tons of sludge flow through Canadian sewers each year, only 1,442 of 3,250 communities have some form of sewage treatment—and another 1,000 municipalities have no sewers at all.

In comparison to the huge quantities of garbage and sewage, the amount of nuclear waste awaiting disposal at plants in Canada and abroad is relatively small. In Ontario alone, however, 16 nuclear reactors have already produced

more than 7,000 tons of spent but stillradioactive fuel, which is now stored in water-filled pools inside sealed buildings. But storage is only a stopgap solution. U.S. and Canadian officials estimate that permanent disposal sites must be capable of containing nuclear waste for at least 10,000 years in order for future generations to be protected from cancer-causing radiation. As a result, the officials want to store the waste in deep shafts drilled into what they say are stable rock formations.

Residents living near such proposed storage sites as Lac du Bonnet, 100 km northeast of Winnipeg, say that they do not want radioactive material in storage near their homes. The concern of the residents, environmentalists and critics of the nuclear industry—including Toronto-based Energy Probe spokesman Norman Rubin—is that all containers can leak and that geologists cannot guarantee the stability of the area’s granite formation for 10,000 years. Despite such long-term storage problems, nuclear industry spokesmen maintain that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh its risks.

Complex: Safe disposal of the material—and of less-hazardous waste—has become a complex problem for governments and industry alike. But dump sites across Canada are filling up, and there are increasingly heated debates in communities about accepting garbage from neighboring cities. In contrast to Cache Creek, the residents of Bristol, Que., recently rejected a plan by o the cities of Ottawa and Hull to send their garbage on a 60-km trip to a site near the small community. In part, growing concern about the content of that so-called ordinary garbage helped defeat the proposal. Said Pollution Probe’s executive director Colin Isaacs: “Landfill sites were once perfectly appropriate. But in the last 40 years, even household garbage has become very toxic.”

Similarly, concern over the poisonous ash spewing out of incinerator chimneys has led to the manufacture of new units that can trap pollutants before they reach the atmosphere. To that end, the Greater Vancouver Regional District opened a $75-million incinerator last December. Its features include a computer-controlled furnace, gas-emission

monitors and fabric filters—known as scrubbers—that trap heavy-metal particles. Still, declared Isaacs: “Pollutioncontrol scrubbers keep toxins out of the air, but that doesn’t prevent them from being produced. They’re caught up in the ash. Then, where do you dispose of the highly toxic ash produced by those new incinerators?”

Other countries are already grappling with that problem. Last March, officials of the West African nation of Guinea discovered 15,000 tons of material on an island near the capital. As trees and plants around the abandoned quarry

containing the material began dying, a government investigation disclosed that the so-called building material was in fact highly toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia. A Norwegian company had shipped the waste from that city and dumped it onto the island.

Toxic: Similar incidents in other African states, where shippers have sought sites for toxic waste in return for fees as low as $3 per ton, have led many poor countries to adopt measures to protect themselves from becoming a dumping ground for the industrialized world. In July, ambassadors from 22 developing

countries met in Rio de Janeiro and decided to monitor the movements of vessels that are suspected of carrying toxic waste. As well, officials of the Nairobibased UN Environment Program are preparing an international convention that would strictly regulate international movements of hazardous waste.

In the United States and Canada, meanwhile, many environmentalists say that North Americans should practise the so-called three Rs of waste management: reduce the amount of garbage produced, reuse such goods as returnable bottles and recycle other material. Following an eight-week pilot project in Toronto, Pollution Probe researcher Gordon Perks has concluded that many people would welcome a refusecollection system requiring them to separate household garbage. Unlike most recycling programs that limit separation to a few items such as paper and bottles, Perks’s study required the members of 70 households who volunteered to sort their garbage into three containers. The results, according to Perks: 70 per cent of all household garbage could be recycled. But Environment Canada’s Campbell, for one, stressed that such a high recovery rate would be extremely difficult to maintain. Most recycling programs, he added, achieve about a 25per-cent salvage rate.

Advance: Still, as Canadians become increasingly aware of the dimensions of the garbage problem and, like Cache Creek’s Rowe, demand a voice in decisions on waste disposal, even a 25-per-cent reduction in the volume of waste would represent a significant advance. Clearly, when communities across the country are refusing to serve as landfill sites for their I garbage-generating s neighbors, every item o that is saved from the z dump site has heights' ened significance, z

BARBARA WICKENS with

DEBORRA SCHUG