Skip to main content

When school groups come to visit the Halton landfill, manager Gerrit Buitenhuis asks them to draw pictures of what they think the place will look like. The childish pictures arranged on his wall show heaps of rotting garbage on a landscape strewn with litter. "They think it's going to stink and have black liquid oozing out of the ditches."

Then he takes them on a tour, and watches their faces.

The Halton landfill, one of the most modern in Ontario, is a campus of neat buildings, groomed lawns and meticulously maintained roads. In one corner, orderly rows of steaming organic waste sit composting in the crisp air. In another, a man in a pickup truck unloads some scrap wood into one of 20 recycling bins.

At the main tipping site, bulldozers flatten piles of arriving garbage and immediately cover it with clay or earth. Wheeled, movable fences catch garbage bags and other litter before they can blow into surrounding farmers' fields. To keep off hungry gulls, Mr. Buitenhuis has Xena, the female Harris hawk that costs $80,000 a year with trainer.

As he tells the surprised kids, landfills have come a long way from the days of the smelly open dump. Why, then, is everyone so afraid of them?

"Landfills are not popular facilities," a Halton handout concedes. That is putting it mildly.

Angelos Bacopoulos, Toronto's garbage chief, once found himself facing a mob of 1,500 in a community hall in Ontario's cottage country. Furious at a plan to build a landfill nearby, they pelted him with snowballs, tuques and curses. At a similar meeting in the region of Durham east of Toronto, he was hit with a dead fish.

"Nobody wants our garbage," says Mr. Bacopoulos, who has spent most of his 22 years with the city trying to persuade someone -- anyone -- to take it. "It's like the black plague."

Landfill phobia is the main reason for Toronto's garbage crisis. The municipal and provincial governments spent a princely $150-million between 1986 and 1995 alone looking for landfills to take the city's growing tide of garbage, most it now exported to Michigan. All in vain.

Toronto can't even find an Ontario landfill to take its garbage for a few days. When it recently let tenders for emergency landfill capacity, in case Michigan shuts its borders to Ontario trash, it received not a single bid.

Other municipalities in Ontario are in a similar fix. Halton was the last Ontario municipality to get a landfill approved and built, opening its fill in 1992 near the town of Milton, 40 kilometres west of Toronto. It took 20 years and $120-million.

The dominant private disposal company, Waste Management, has not had a major new landfill approved in Ontario since 1996.

It can't even manage to expand its existing sites. A court decision last year over expansion plans at its Richmond landfill in Napanee, Ont., made the already-Byzantine approval process tougher, putting the Richmond project and several others around the province on hold.

Across the country in Alberta, Edmonton considered 100 possible sites for a new landfill and spent $6-million before finally abandoning its search in frustration.

Landfill's rotten reputation is hard to explain. There has been no headline-grabbing environmental disaster to blacken its name, as Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island did for nuclear power or New York State's Love Canal did for toxic waste.

The last major incident in Ontario involved a dump in Perkinsfield near Georgian Bay that began leaking chemicals in the early 1980s. The province responded by supplying bottled drinking water to local families worried about contamination. But the Perkinsfield dump became a problem only because it broke regulations, taking millions of litres of toxic waste from Ontario factories.

That is because, over the decades, landfills have undergone a technological revolution. "We're not just a hole in the ground for garbage any more," said Halton's Mr. Buitenhuis.

The first "sanitary landfill" opened in Fresno, Calif., in the mid-1930s. Instead of leaving garbage in the open air, Fresno covered it with a compacted-earth lid to keep odours down and vermin out.

But that still left a big problem. As garbage rots, it produces an unpleasant liquid that experts call leachate -- "garbage juice" to the rest of us. It can leak out of the bottom of a landfill and pollute the groundwater.

That is why modern landfills are lined and sealed. Halton lines each of its landfill "cells," or excavated cavities, with a blanket of crushed stone, topped with up to a metre of high-density clay. That is supposed to prevent leaks, but, just in case, Halton also collects the leachate in a network of pipes that lie on the bottom of each cell.

The collected leachate goes to the local water-treatment plant. To make sure its leachate system is working, Halton has more than 150 monitoring wells to check the purity of the groundwater.

The latest landfills have even better systems. Regulations now demand not just a clay liner but a "geomembrane," a thick synthetic sheet, usually of high-density polyethylene.

In an even newer twist, some landfills now put their collected leachate back into the fill to speed up decomposition of the garbage. At least 10 landfills in North America now use this "bioreactor" system." Probes within the garbage mass constantly monitor the heat and moisture content, sending the data via cellphone link to a computer. Meanwhile, a global positioning system checks the measurements of the landfill to see how fast it is filling up.

Aside from shrinking the garbage mass and increasing the landfill's capacity, the bioreactor system produces something valuable: methane gas.

Like leachate, methane is produced when garbage rots. Landfills used to let it escape into the atmosphere, making a stink and polluting the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide and could contribute to global warming. It is also explosive. In 1977, a house in London, Ont., blew up because of leaking methane.

Today, many landfills collect the gas to produce electricity. Waste Management runs 70 methane power plants around North America that produce enough to power 145,000 homes. For every megawatt of electricity produced from landfill methane, one less must be produced by coal-burning, greenhouse-gas spewing power plants. So modern landfills not only limit their own pollution, they also cut pollution from other sources by producing clean energy.

That doesn't stop environmentalists from hating them.

"To my knowledge, every dump that there ever was leaks," said Gordon Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "They just become endless polluting legacies. It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Others say that whether landfills pollute or not, it is wrong in principle to bury materials that could be reused or recycled just as easily. "I don't accept landfill as a solution," says Toronto councillor Jane Pitfield, chair of the city's works committee. "It's old-fashioned, it's archaic and it's immoral."

Those who live near landfills are especially passionate. "Until you live with this crap, you can't understand it," said Steve Geneja, who speaks for a group that wants to stop the expansion of the Napanee landfill. He calls that site "a bomb waiting to explode."

Landfill pollution may already be poisoning nearby residents, he says, causing bronchitis, kidney and liver disease and "babies that are slow mentally." Not only that, but horses born on a local farm had twisted spines and other deformities.

Fears like these are common among landfill opponents. But the Ontario Environment Ministry says that it has found no evidence of any health problems caused by the Napanee landfill, though some residents have complained about the smell. As for deformed foals, it checked the farmer's well and found nothing unusual in the water.

In fact, it is hard to find any proven case in which an Ontario landfill has harmed human health in recent years. The Environmental Law Association says that as far as it knows, no one has been awarded damages for health problems associated with a landfill (though many have won awards for property depreciation and other economic losses). Most complaints about landfills are over smells, noise and truck traffic, not pollution.

What, then, is all the fuss about? Opponents argue that even if they are clean now -- which they dispute -- a big problem would remain: What to do when they fill up.

"If the landfill builder is gone, who's going to clean up that mess," said environmental lawyer Richard Lindgren. "Surely there's a better way than dumping garbage in the ground, crossing our fingers and hoping it will be okay."

But here, too, there has been progress. Abandoned dumps used to be simply covered up and left there. Not any more. Before any new landfill can open, the operators must put aside a special contingency fund, averaging $5-million to $7-million for a medium-sized fill, to deal with unforeseen problems down the road.

Some operators are hiring landfill "miners" to take what is useful out of old fills. The miners first pour leachate and water into the closed fill to speed the decomposition of organic matter, then dig through what is left with a backhoe and pick out the metal, glass, plastic and other "inorganics" for recycling. Pioneered by a Canadian company, Environmental Plastic Solutions Inc., the process removes 85 per cent of a landfill's contents. That means the site can be filled up again, avoiding the cost of finding and opening a new fill site.

Other landfill operators are turning closed sites into golf courses, parks and even nature sanctuaries. In the United States, about 70 golf courses have been built on landfills, sometimes with alarming results. At Colorado's Englewood course, car bumpers, wigs and bowling balls have pushed up through the greens. Most recent courses seal the fill with a clay cap to avoid such surprises.

In Sarnia, Ont., Waste Management is spending $13-million to help turn a 60-year-old landfill, closed in 2001, into a 100-acre park with playgrounds, walking trails and bike paths.

Halton hasn't decided yet what to do with its fill after it closes, and it won't have to face that question for another 28 years, when its total capacity of 4 million tonnes will be used up if garbage keeps arriving at the current pace.

Because it has learned to live with landfill, Halton has the luxury of time. Because they haven't, Toronto and other communities across Canada are facing a painful and unnecessary garbage crisis.

At the end of his school tours, Gerrit Buitenhuis asks the kids to draw pictures of what they saw, as opposed to what they expected. The pictures show a tidy landscape with trim buildings, yellow bulldozers -- and of course Xena the hawk.

"They usually say that it smells a bit but it's very clean and neat," says Mr. Buitenhuis. "They're surprised. I always say to them, 'Tell your parents what you saw.' "

The latter-day landfill

Modern landfill sites are designed to prevent pollutants such as leachate (liquid from decomposing garbage) and methane (gas from decomposing garbage) from entering the groundwater and the air.

Protective cover: Made up of vegetation, top soil and other soil, it keeps odours from rising and prevents erosion of the soil beneath. It also protects the landfill cap system.

Composite cap system: A drainage layer of sand or gravel, a geomemembrane (thick plastic liner) and a layer of compacted clay prevent exces moisture from entering the landfill to become leachate.

Working landfill: The day's layer of fresh waste is covered with 15 to 30 centimetres of soil to reduce odour and scattering of litter.

Leachate collection system: A layer of sand, gravel or thick plastic mesh drains the excess moisture through a geotextile filter down to a layer of gravel. Perforated pipes within the gravel collect the leachate and drain it away from the site.

Composite liner system: Another geomembrane and layer of compacted clay prevent leachate, gases and odour from leaving the landfill.

Where do the pollutants go?

Leachate: Goes to the local water-treatment plant to be broken down, or is siphoned back into the fill to speed up decomposition of the garbage.

Methane: In North America, landfill gas is generated into electricity, producing enough power for 145,000 homes.


Unwanted waste

Monday: The garbage "crisis" is really no crisis at all

Today: Landfill phobia lies behind the garbage crunch

Part 3: Why incineration is a burning issue

Part 4: There's no turning back on recycling