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Ted Comiskey, the mayor of Ingersoll, Ontario, poses for a photo in front of a quarry, that was going to be used for a garbage dump, on Feb. 5 2022.Brett Gundlock/The Globe and Mail

For all the recent talk of a circular economy, Ontario’s is more like a linear pipeline: Resources are extracted, used once, then disposed of.

The province committed long ago to diverting more refuse into recycling and reuse programs, but missed the mark widely. This leaves it heavily reliant on landfill sites – its own, and those of neighbouring U.S. states.

Its own are filling up quickly. According to the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA), an industry lobby group that tracks available capacity, the remaining space will be exhausted by 2036.

“In the next five to 10 years, you’ve got up to five major landfills that are that are going to close down,” said Geordie Walker, president and CEO of Walker Industries, a major waste management company. It can take a decade to acquire the necessary permits for a new landfill, and another two to five years to build it.

In September, 2018, the Ontario Ministry of Environment received a report from two consultants, GHD and Policy Integrity, examining Ontario’s landfill capacity needs. That report concluded Southeastern Ontario would run out of currently approved landfill capacity as early as 2030, and Southwestern Ontario by 2035. The consultants recommended officials begin planning for new capacity immediately.

Instead, in 2020 the government of Premier Doug Ford changed the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, introducing a new provision that granted municipalities the power to veto landfills. Bill 197 (also known as the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act) represented one of the biggest changes to waste management practices in Ontario’s history. As long as the Bill 197 veto remains in place, Mr. Walker and other industry officials assert, opening new landfills is virtually impossible.

All considered, Ontario appears to be sleepwalking toward a self-inflicted landfill capacity crunch. There is a range of promising off-ramps, such as greatly increasing diversion rates. But Ontario’s historical performance, coupled with continuing disinterest, suggests a less benign outcome is more likely.

‘A bias in favour of landfilling’

According to data from the World Bank, Canadians produce more waste than people of almost any other nationality, with the notable exception of those from small islands such as Bermuda and Puerto Rico, where hordes of tourists are a factor. OWMA estimates that Ontarians send about 12 million tonnes of waste to landfills annually. That works out to 2.21 kilograms a person per day, on par with the average American.

This wastefulness is partly rooted in economics. According to a report released by the Council of Canadian Academies in November, virgin materials and disposal charges are cheap throughout Canada, “which creates economic disincentives for waste reduction and the use of secondary materials.” Put another way, those low costs create a “bias in favour of landfilling.”

That’s particularly true in Ontario, which enjoys the lowest tipping fees of any province. Sometimes they’re subsidized: According to the Council of Canadian Academies report, it costs the City of Toronto about $300 to dispose of a tonne of garbage in landfill, but the city recovers only $127 a tonne in fees.

Disposal costs are even cheaper in Michigan and New York. So, despite the high costs of trucking garbage long distances, Ontario has long exported nearly a third of its trash to the U.S.

Ontario has aspired to do better. In 2004 – amid mounting protests from Michigan residents over trans-border waste shipments – the province announced ambitious plans to divert 60 per cent of its waste from landfills. But wishful thinking wasn’t enough: When the province’s Auditor-General checked in 2010, he found that the diversion rate was just 24 per cent. (According to the World Bank, the average diversion rate among high-income countries is 35 per cent.) The situation has changed little since then.

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There are bright spots: The City of Ottawa, for instance, has been recognized by the World Bank for producing less than one kilogram of waste per capita per day, far below the North American average. But whatever progress municipalities have made with blue- and green-bin programs has been overshadowed by increasing waste from industrial, commercial and institutional bodies, which generate more than half the province’s trash. Ontario is considered a laggard not only in comparison with European countries, but also among Canadian provinces.

“Progressive governments over a period of time have put in place new measures that I think are helpful,” said Peter Hargreave, who runs the one-man consultancy Policy Integrity and previously worked in government as a policy adviser, and later for OWMA. “But it really hasn’t moved the yardsticks in any significant way.”

In the dumps

Just outside the Town of Ingersoll, in Oxford County, Carmeuse Lime and Stone’s Beachville quarry was – until recently – on track to begin a second life. Walker Industries planned to establish Ontario’s first major new landfill site in decades in a mined-out section of the quarry. Early in 2020, having spent more than $15-million, the company was nearing the end of an eight-year environmental review of the project, which it called its Southwestern Landfill.

Harry Dahme, a partner with Gowling WLG who specializes in environmental law, has worked in the waste management field since 1984, representing both landfill proponents and opponents. He said the province hasn’t approved a major new landfill since the Taro Landfill in Stoney Creek, in 1996.

Even before Bill 197, he added, opening a new landfill was no cakewalk. Decades ago, the province introduced standards on groundwater protection, air emissions, leachate control, buffer areas – all issues that must be addressed during the environmental assessment process.

“The process to get that will take you 10 years, and in excess of $10-million,” Mr. Dahme said.

For landfill proponents, there was a silver lining: the Ministry of Environment almost always said yes. According to a Globe analysis, of the 50 EAs for new landfills, expansions and other waste management projects submitted since 1996, only two were refused.

That didn’t sit well with many smaller municipalities, and it set the stage for an epic battle over rubbish – one that pitted them against the province’s big cities and the waste management industry.

Walker’s proposed Southwestern Landfill faced considerable opposition. Local resident Bryan Smith led an opposition group called Oxford People Against The Landfill, or OPAL Alliance for short. He worried about bad odours, dust and diesel fumes, and plummeting property values. But what rankled most was the source of the garbage.

“They had a plan that would bring 17.4 million tonnes, largely out of Toronto,” Mr. Smith said recently. “We had some polling a couple of years ago, and we got extremely high numbers in opposition to the dump from all over Oxford County.”

A sign protesting a proposed dump, in Ingersoll, Ont., on Feb. 5, 2022.Brett Gundlock/The Globe and Mail

Ted Comiskey, Ingersoll’s mayor, said he’d assumed landfill proponents needed co-operation from municipalities. As he listened to a presentation from Walker officials outlining their plans to locate the Southwestern Landfill just outside his town’s limits, he realized his mistake.

“They don’t have to ask for permission at all,” he said. “And never to this day have they ever asked us whether we’re interested.”

Mr. Comiskey travelled across the province searching for allies. He found many. John Vanthof, an NDP member of provincial parliament, had alleged that landfill developers were targeting rural communities, and that provincial policies enabled them to ignore local concerns. In 2018, Mr. Vanthof petitioned the legislature to give municipalities a veto. Meanwhile, Mr. Comiskey persuaded more than 150 municipalities (including large ones such as Ottawa, Pickering and Waterloo Region) to pass motions demanding the same thing.

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Those demands found a sympathetic ear in Doug Ford’s Conservative Party, which was already moving to let municipalities send wind-farm developers packing. Shortly afterward, the party unveiled a “Made In Ontario Environment Plan,” which promised municipalities greater say in landfill siting approvals.

That led to Bill 197. Passed in 2020, it required that, prior to commencing an environmental assessment, a landfill proponent obtain a copy of a local municipal council resolution indicating that the council supports the project. If the site is located within 3.5 kilometres of a border with an adjacent municipality, the proponent needs to obtain a separate resolution from that council as well.

The Southwestern Landfill would have been located in the Township of Zorra. Ingersoll and the Township of Southwest Oxford are both within 3.5 kilometres. All three municipalities passed motions saying they wanted nothing to do with Walker’s landfill.

“It’s dead in the water,” Mr. Comiskey said.

SITING A NEW LANDFILL IN SOUTHERN ONTARIO JUST GOT TOUGHER

Passed in 2020, Bill 197 required proponents of new landfills to obtain a supportive resolution from the local municipal council, plus that of any municipality within 3.5 km of the site. Critics of the new rules say this effective veto makes it nearly impossible to establish new landfills.

EXAMPLE SCENARIO:

Municipality A

Municipality B

3.5 km

3.5 km

Buffer zone for Municipality B

Buffer zone for Municipality A

Municipal boundary

Within 3.5 km of any municipal boundary, support from at least two municipalities is required

Number of councils from which approval is needed for new landfills

Three

Two

One

Four

Five

ONTARIO

Sudbury

Ottawa

Kingston

Barrie

Toronto

Niagara Falls

London

Windsor

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT, CONSERVATION AND PARKS; ONTARIO DATA CATALOGUE

SITING A NEW LANDFILL IN SOUTHERN ONTARIO JUST GOT TOUGHER

Passed in 2020, Bill 197 required proponents of new landfills to obtain a supportive resolution from the local municipal council, plus that of any municipality within 3.5 km of the site. Critics of the new rules say this effective veto makes it nearly impossible to establish new landfills.

EXAMPLE SCENARIO:

Municipality A

Municipality B

3.5 km

3.5 km

Buffer zone for Municipality B

Buffer zone for Municipality A

Municipal boundary

Within 3.5 km of any municipal boundary, support from at least two municipalities is required

Number of councils from which approval is needed for new landfills

Three

Two

One

Four

Five

ONTARIO

Sudbury

Ottawa

Kingston

Barrie

Toronto

Niagara Falls

London

Windsor

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT, CONSERVATION AND PARKS; ONTARIO DATA CATALOGUE

SITING A NEW LANDFILL IN SOUTHERN ONTARIO JUST GOT TOUGHER

Passed in 2020, Bill 197 required proponents of new landfills to obtain a supportive resolution from the local municipal council, plus that of any municipality within 3.5 km of the site. Critics of the new rules say this effective veto makes it nearly impossible to establish new landfills.

EXAMPLE SCENARIO:

Municipality A

Municipality B

3.5 km

3.5 km

Buffer zone for Municipality B

Buffer zone for Municipality A

Municipal boundary

Within 3.5 km of any municipal boundary, support from at least two municipalities is required

ONTARIO

Sudbury

Ottawa

Kingston

Barrie

Toronto

Niagara Falls

London

Number of councils from which approval is needed for new landfills

Windsor

Three

Two

One

Four

Five

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT, CONSERVATION AND PARKS; ONTARIO DATA CATALOGUE

Crunch time

According to the Ministry of Environment, the Bill 197 veto doesn’t apply to expansions of existing landfills. Even before Bill 197, expansions were easier to pull off than new construction. According to OWMA, since 2016 Ontario has approved seven expansions totalling more than 47 million tonnes of new capacity. (An expansion of the nearly full Ridge Landfill near Blenheim, Ont., approved in 2020, accounted for well more than half of that.)

Consequently, over time, Ontario has become increasingly reliant on a dozen or so “megadumps.” But there are physical limitations. “You can only build high for so long, and then you start to get into slope stability issues,” Mr. Hargreave said.

According to provincial forecasts, Ontario will produce 17 million tonnes of waste each year by mid-century, and will need 16 new or expanded landfills. Industry officials claim that even before Bill 197 the province was heading for trouble.

Not all Ontarians would be affected equally. Mr. Hargreave said many municipalities, particularly small- and medium-sized ones, have sufficient capacity to meet residential waste needs for as long as half a century. They protect that capacity carefully, for example by charging high fees for commercial waste so that it flows elsewhere.

Heavily populated municipalities such Toronto, York and Peel, on the other hand, lack sufficient available land for large new landfills, and long ago began shipping their waste farther afield. Some large cities, along with generators of industrial and commercial waste, now depend on a handful of privately owned landfills, most of which are accepting close to their annual limits already, Mr. Hargreave said.

“The projects in the environmental assessment process now are years away from being approved,” said Mike Chopowick, OWMA’s chief executive. “We are in a very uncomfortable position.”

Mr. Dahme concurred. “We are going to be experiencing a crisis,” he said.

Just how fatal Bill 197 actually is to new landfills has been debated.

Mr. Walker said his company can’t expect municipalities’ support early in the siting process. “There’s not a community that’s going to provide support for landfill today, because it’s been required ahead of any science being done,” he said. “It puts municipalities in a tight spot.”

Even if such support could be secured, it might not last through election cycles, making it risky for a proponent to spend years and millions of dollars on an environmental assessment. “There’s no private business that’s going to do that … certainly not ourselves,” Mr. Walker said.

If that’s true, huge swaths of Ontario are now effectively off-limits. A Globe analysis found that many of the province’s existing landfills would have required approvals from multiple municipalities, had Bill 197 applied when they were proposed. Toronto’s Green Lane landfill, for example, would have required approvals from the City of London, the Municipality of Middlesex Centre and the Township of Southwold. (The Oneida No. 4 reserve is about three kilometres away, but Bill 197 did not grant First Nations a veto.)

Heavy machinery moves garbage at Green Lane facility, a landfill near London, Ont., on March 18, 2019.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Comiskey, though, regards the industry’s claims as “fear tactics.” As far as he’s concerned, landfill proponents such as Walker Industries should negotiate with municipalities. And if it costs more to reach an agreement, he added, “that’s the cost of doing business.”

Campbell Strategies, a Toronto-based public-affairs firm, prepared a survey of councillors, mayors and other municipal officials from across Ontario in 2019 on Ingersoll’s behalf. It found that four in 10 would consider playing host to a new landfill “if their conditions were met.”

Larger municipalities, though, are worried. St. Catharines, for instance, passed a resolution asking the province to remove the veto. Toronto, meanwhile, figures its Green Lane landfill has only about 15 years of capacity remaining. This year it initiated a study of its future options.

“Without additional landfill development in Ontario, municipalities will have fewer local options, other than exporting their waste out-of-province or securing residual waste disposal capacity at alternative waste disposal facilities,” noted a city report.

Finding a relief valve

An optimist might argue that a capacity crunch is just what Ontario needs: It could send tipping fees skyward, supplying the necessary motivation for greatly improved waste diversion. That’s precisely what veterans of Ingersoll’s landfill wars hope for. Mr. Comiskey, for example, has little sympathy for the waste management industry’s current predicament, which he regards as self-inflicted.

“I just wish we would concentrate on [waste] reduction rather than on finding ways to bury it,” he said.

Increased diversion could provide relief. Toronto has successfully extended Green Lane’s life by reducing annual tonnages of waste sent there during the past decade, and by compacting waste more.

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More could be done. Mr. Hargreave said Ontario has mulled banning organic waste from landfills, and points to Quebec and Manitoba, both of which impose landfill levies that encourage increased diversion. Looking farther afield, many European jurisdictions perform far better on waste diversion, and some of their practices could be adopted.

But increased diversion is not the only possibility, nor perhaps the most likely. As Ontario’s capacity fills up, waste handlers could send even more to Michigan.

Mr. Chopowick does not oppose taking advantage of low U.S. tipping fees, but he said exports are politically precarious. “We do have to, somewhere in our waste management strategy in Ontario, prepare for the eventuality or possibility that that could end,” he added.

Indeed, many Michiganders aren’t eager to accept outsiders’ garbage. During her campaign in 2018, the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, vowed to end all imports of out-of-state waste, with an explicit goal of “stopping Canadian trash.” But so far she hasn’t delivered on that promise.

Chaz Miller, a retired U.S. waste industry veteran who once worked for the National Solid Waste Management Association, said state governments’ hands are tied by a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which provides for the free flow of solid waste across the border.

Ontario could also follow its consultants’ advice from 2018 and start planning new capacity now. Mr. Hargreave said the primary obstacle to that is the four-year election cycle, which doesn’t lend itself to managing waste issues.

“A permanent new landfill site or additional capacity is not going to win you favour with anybody,” he said. “It’s politically easy to push off decisions like this.”

Peter Bulionis, a retired mechanical engineer living in Guelph who used to work in the waste management industry, worries that Bill 197 could come back to bite small communities. That’s because the environment minister can approve new landfill capacity in emergencies, whether or not an environmental assessment has been completed.

“At some point, Mr. Ford will have a piano drop on his head, and he’ll figure out that, ‘Hey, I’ve got a crisis here,’ ” Mr. Bulionis said. “And my concern is that he’s going to look at the map of Ontario, put his thumb on Guelph or somewhere else that didn’t vote for him and say, ‘You guys are going to take one for the team.’ ”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Peter Hargreave runs Policy Options. This version has been corrected.

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