Trash Topography

TEXT + IMAGES Pierre Belanger

On December 31, 2002, Canada’s largest municipal solid waste facility, the Keele Valley Landfill, received its last shipment of garbage from the city of Toronto. After 20 years of contentious operation, the closure of the site was celebrated by the town of Vaughan with a big party where thousands of locals turned up for fireworks, and for what would become a new picturesque park and an 18-hole Scottish-style golf course. After a decade of site studies, community consultations and conservative environmental politics that failed to find a solution to the GTA’s waste disposal problem (think about the Adams Mine site near Kirkland Lake for example), garbage eventually began flowing south across the Canada-US border. In fact, America’s third-largest importer of trash in the US next to Pennsylvania and Virginia was more than happy to pick up the slack. Recalibrating the laws of supply and demand, Michigan capitalized on the huge capacity of its landfills to essentially become a magnet for all the solid waste in the Great Lakes Region.

By the early 1990s, America’s largest waste handlers were, not surprisingly, totally prepared for the imminent garbage crisis in big cities. When strict new environmental standards–such as the infamous Subtitle D Regulations–were enacted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1991, small landfill operators were unable to sustain the capital investment required for engineering upgrades and simply shut down. The impact of this legislative vise-grip was so significant that from 1990 to 2000, the number of landfills in the US plummeted from over 10,000 to under 2,600. Exacerbated by the closure of the world’s largest dump in 2002, New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the drop immediately created the perception that there was a lack of airspace–a logistical term that defines the maximum filling capacity of a site–throughout the country catalyzing an unprecedented reorganization of the municipal solid waste industry, especially on the Eastern Seaboard. Forced to radically consolidate their operations, large waste management corporations (Allied, Onyx, WMI and Republic known as the “Big Four”) created supersize landfills to essentially achieve greater economies of scale. Seeking solid waste disposal contracts from neighbouring municipalities, most companies look beyond their borders for new waste streams to offset the rising costs of capital infrastructure. Like New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois, Ontario suddenly became Michigan’s best friend. At the centre of this wasteshed–the region defined by garbage flows–are two of the largest waste handlers in North America that opened their gates to Ontario’s waste with two megasize landfills ironically named Carleton Farms and Pine Tree Acres. From the air, the sheer magnitude of their operations is staggering: receiving approximately one tractor trailer every three minutes thanks to rapid-fire turnaround times and GPS-guided bulldozers, every single part of the process is optimized on a time-cost basis; nothing is wasted. By 2025, the size of these two landfills alone will cover an equivalent area of two square miles under a perfectly graded, 300-foot pyramid of garbage.

The rise of Michigan to the top of the garbage empire is both natural and predictable. Five advantages underlie its supremacy. The first is geology: Michigan is endowed with a thick, practically impervious layer of Devonian clay that covers almost the entire state, an advantage its northern and eastern neighbours, with their fractured bedrock, do not share. The second is location: Michigan is at the geographic centre of the Great Lakes Region, bordering on four states and the province of Ontario. Operators throughout the state capitalize on this proximity by situating large landfills as close as possible to the state borders. The third is scale: an abundance of airspace and the streamlining of operations have given the state a competitive edge, with rock-bottom landfilling prices. Dumping in Ontario was about US$100 a ton in 2006, compared to a cost in Michigan of about US$10. The fourth is NAFTA: like the 50,000 tons of hazardous waste (combustible fuels, bio-medical waste and low-level radioactive waste) exported from the US to Canada every year, garbage is considered a primary commodity and is protected by the North American Free Trade Agreement: state governments do not have the authority to halt the stream of garbage. The fifth advantage is the law concerning future use: operators in Michigan are only required to maintain landfills for 30 years after closure whereas in Canada, landfills must be maintained and monitored for at least a century, and in some cases, forever. All told, two-thirds of the more than 5 million cubic metres of waste that were shipped to the Midwestern United States in 2002–enough to fill a football stadium–originated from the province of Ontario. Compounded by a blaze that shut down the new pelletization plant at Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay Treatment Plant on August 22, 2003, the total figure has now jumped to over 11 million cubic metres of waste plus a 150,000-ton sludge surplus exported annually to a variety of landfills across the US-Canada border, en route to the Great Lake State.

Despite Michigan’s predisposition to landfilling, the transboundary movement of waste along what is recognized as the longest, most undisputed border in the world has its opponents. Responding to public pressure, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow have joined forces with Congressman John D. Dingell to end the legacy of what they call “Michigan as the dumping ground for ever-increasing amounts of Canadian trash,” putting into question the foundations of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But for landfill operators like Norm Folson, site manager at the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in northeast Detroit, living in a state with the second-highest rate of unemployment next to Mississippi, yields a radically different view: “We love Canadian garbage. Tipping fees pay our salaries and pave our roads. Besides, Canadian garbage is really easy to compact because it’s really dry. It’s dry because Canadians compost almost everything. To us, Canadian garbage is like gold.”

The contemporary challenge of mass-landfilling in Michigan effectively signals a tipping point in the handling of garbage in big cities. Unilateral solutions to garbage collection and disposal born from mid-20th-century centralized forms of planning and engineering can no longer deal with the magnitude and the complexity of urban waste streams. A challenge amplified by the reality that the construction and demolition industry in North America produces twice as much waste as the municipal sector (400 versus 235 million tons), a figure dwarfed by the mining industry which produces five to ten times more every year (2-3 billion tons). So, notwithstanding the environmental consequences, energy inputs and geopolitical costs of exporting garbage, how then can big cities avoid their reliance on large, privately owned, distant landfills?

Closing the material loop with multilateral strategies that include diversion, separation, recycling and composting programs may prove effective as durable alternatives. One of the best examples of the potential effectiveness of strategically integrated programs is a new, state-of-the-art composting facility on the site of a former tire manufacturing plant, contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and petro-hydrocarbons in the Hamilton Harbour. Built by a world-class public-private partnership between the City of Hamilton’s Waste Division, Maple Reinders Constructors (a Canadian design-build company) and the Christiaens Group (a Dutch composting and mushroom technology expert), the 40-acre facility can process of up to 90,000 tons of compost every year, enough for a city of almost one million people. As the first and largest indoor facility of its kind in North America, the operative cost of composting is remarkably 25% to 35% less than landfilling, sim
ultaneously offsetting the cost of bio-remediation (such as in-situ deep molasses injection). There are also plans to expand the facility with sorting recyclable materials that, on a per-ton basis, could generate 10 times more jobs than landfilling. If all of Canada’s five million tons of durable goods now discarded into landfills each year were reclaimed through reuse, it is estimated that more than 50,000 new jobs could be created in this industry alone. This is where the recycling industry eclipses the landfilling industry through employment spin-offs, technological innovation, ecological recovery and land redevelopment. With the more than 250 million tons of municipal solid waste generated each year and the 350 million brownfields currently idling across North America, the evidence suggests that the unilateral dependence on garbage exports can be counteracted through new, previously unforeseen economic and ecological synergies that exist between public regulatory agencies, private turnkey enterprises, emerging recycling technologies and post-industrial lands–where it matters the most: at the source, in big cities.

Pierre Blanger is co-director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto and an assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design. This article is a summary of a photo-essay titled “Airspace: The Ecologies and Economies of Landfilling in Michigan” published in TRASH (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).