Ontario's towns and cities demand a say on landfills

Cities across Ontario have set strict rules to encourage household recycling and minimize residential garbage going to landfill, but most waste in the province comes from businesses and institutions — and cities have virtually no say in where it ends up.

Municipalities have virtually no control over where industrial, commercial and institutional waste ends up

The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change projects Ontario will need 16 new or expanded landfills in the next 30 years if greater efforts aren't made to recycle. (The Associated Press)

The people of Zorra Township have spent years worrying their picturesque country landscape will soon become a literal dumping ground for the Greater Toronto Area.

Just 165 kilometres southwest of Toronto, the small town has been pegged as a potential future home of a new landfill that could see 850,000 tonnes of trash trucked in annually.

The landfill will mostly take waste from businesses and institutions in the GTA, not from the local community.

"It becomes really hard to swallow that on top of [our] efforts, we are now potentially an unwilling host for someone else's waste — a dump that could be much larger than our own," said Zorra Coun. Marcus Ryan.

No control over commercial waste

While cities across the province have set strict rules to encourage household recycling and minimize the amount of residential garbage going to landfill, most waste in Ontario comes from the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sector — and cities have virtually no say in where all that garbage ends up. 

That means Zorra isn't alone. Without further recycling efforts, the Ministry of the Environment projects Ontario will need 16 new or expanded landfills in the next 30 years, and local residents will have little to no control over whether the next one ends up in their neighbourhood.

In April, Ottawa city councillors were forced to approve the zoning for a new landfill in the city's rural east end.

Residents in Russell Township and Ottawa's Cumberland ward have been fighting a proposal to build a waste facility in the area since 2010. Taggart Miller originally proposed a site on Russell Road, but in 2012 switched to one at Boundary and Divine roads. (CBC)

The province gave the facility a nod last year over the protests of neighbours, councillors and the mayor. The city had no power to overturn that decision.

The episode in Zorra spurred Oxford MPP Ernie Hardeman to draft a private member's bill to give municipalities a say in where new landfills are dumped.

It would be a huge boon for towns and cities that want the power to keep landfills out, but with seven million tonnes of business and industrial waste generated every year, those landfills will have to go somewhere.

That's why Ottawa wants to take things a step further.

Coun. Stephen Blais, who represents the area where Ottawa's new landfill will go, said if cities have to deal with the fallout of new landfills they should also have the power to force companies to be less wasteful.

"We should have some of the control and some of the responsibility and funding to put in the regulations around that activity," Blais said.

Many of his fellow councillors agree. 

New rules proposed last year

Last year the Ontario government passed the Waste Free Ontario Act, the first step in imposing rules that would prevent businesses from shipping garbage to landfills.

The government is scheduled to start consulting on those new rules this year.

But with Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne conceding election defeat last weekend, people in areas like Zorra and southeast Ottawa will be keeping a keen eye on what the other parties have planned.

Here's what the three major parties are promising:


  • Make producers more accountable for reducing and reusing waste to preserve resources and recover valuable materials from waste currently lost to landfill.
  • Create a food and organic waste framework outlining steps the province, municipalities, and the IC&I and waste management sectors are taking to reduce compostable material.
  • Continue to invest in a program that makes it easier for grocery stores and restaurants to donate surplus food to local community organizations instead of letting it go to waste.

New Democrats

  • Municipalities should not have landfills imposed on them against the wishes of the local community.
  • Will work in partnership with producers, consumers, municipalities and other stakeholders to implement evidence-based policies in the public interest.

Progressive Conservatives

  • Support for private member's bill to allow municipalities more control over potential landfill locations.

PC Leader Doug Ford's campaign did not say how he would reduce the amount of waste headed to landfills, only that he would support Hardeman's private member's bill to give cities more autonomy.

"As a former city councillor, I respect the right for local municipalities to make the decisions best for their communities," Ford wrote in a statement.

But handing too much power over Ontario's garbage over to towns and cities could create a confusing patchwork of rules across the province, according to Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.

75% of IC&I waste goes to landfill

It could also leave towns with weaker rules vulnerable.

Right now, Ontario is so far behind, it's not even clear how much garbage is heading to landfills, she said. Any data is based on best guesses and estimates from the companies themselves.

According to the estimates available, about 75 per cent of waste generated by businesses and institutions ends up in landfills, St. Godard said.

"I think fundamentally it comes down to political will," she said.

Ottawa city council already has that will, Blais said. He said the city wouldn't shy away from penalties and incentives to encourage business owners, restaurant owners, schools and hospitals to recycle their waste.  

"Maybe then we won't need 16 more [landfills] across the province," he said.