Friday, April 29, 2005

Canada's Biggest Export to America: Trash

Question: Why is Toronto so clean?
Answer: Because all their garbage is shipped to Detroit.

Sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's not....

Many Americans would be very surprised to learn that Canada's largest export (by volume) to the United States is garbage. Yes, garbage. Americans think of their country as the greatest nation in the world, and would bristle to learn that parts of their country are being used as a garbage dump for their northern neighbor.

Until a few years ago, this situation was more contained. Canadian manufacturing plants have been shipping their hazardous waste across the border to American disposal facilities for years. And, since Canadian garbage dumps charge high fees to accept garbage, Canadian businesses (who pay for their own garbage collection) found it more economical to have their garbage shipped across the border to dumps in Michigan.

Then, a few years ago, the City of Toronto got into the act, and is currently shipping all of Toronto's residential garbage to a landfill site in Michigan. Toronto is a big city (4 million people - almost as big as Chicago) so it produces a lot of garbage. Toronto's trash is picked up at homes and taken to transfer facilities where it is tightly compressed into blocks, loaded into large tractor-trailer trucks and driven across the border to Michigan. 120 of these large trucks filled with compressed Toronto garbage cross the border into the United States every day, and return to Canada empty. When you add up the trash from other sources (Toronto's trash is less than 40% of the total) you get over three million metric tonnes of Canadian trash being dumped in Michigan every year.

You can add to that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of human sewage sludge that are also shipped from Toronto to Michigan landfill sites. So, Canada is not only using America as its garbage dump, but as its latrine as well. What nice neighbors we Canadians are, huh?

Garbage in Canada has always been mired in politics. Nobody wants a garbage dump or an incinerator anywhere close to their neighborhood, and unfortunately these whims have been succumbed to by too many spineless politicians over the years. Toronto's garbage situation is a case in point.

About ten years ago, Toronto realized their landfill sites were almost full and had a plan to ship their garbage to a disused pit-mine in a small Canadian town called Kirkland Lake. Then, the politicians got into the act and squashed the whole idea. Other proposals for incinerators were similarly squashed. In any other country, Toronto would have had to figure out how to deal with this problem themselves, but fortunately for them, some enterprising companies in Michigan offered them an easy way out: ship their trash to America and dump it in Michigan.

For those Canadians reading this, think about how you would feel if you found out that New York City was shipping all its trash and human waste to Canada - you'd probably be outraged. How then can we not expect Americans to think similarly? I think the only saving grace of this program is that not a lot of people in America know about it... yet. I am quite certain that if Americans were aware that Canada was using Michigan as their garbage dump, there would be a general outrage.

Another problem for America is border security. It is tough enough inspecting regular truck shipments going across the border, but for a truckload of rotting food, used baby diapers, and other odious material that you find in household garbage, how difficult would it be to search it for drugs, weapons, bombs, nuclear material, or whatever other material someone may be trying to smuggle into the United States? Almost impossible.

Toronto is really asking for trouble by prolonging this system, because at some point, someone in America is going to clue in and shut the whole program down, leaving Toronto to scramble for an alternate destination for their trash.