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Archive for November, 2010

This week I visited the dump. That is, the dump where a good chunk of Montreal’s garbage goes: the BFI Canada landfill in Lachenaie (Terrebonne), just northeast of the island. It’s the biggest active landfill in Quebec, taking in non-hazardous solid waste from Montreal, Laval, Lanaudière, the Laurentians and the Montérégie.

As I stared at a bulldozer pushing a mound of garbage, I thought: every granola bar wrapper, every piece of Styrofoam packaging, every item that I throw into my garbage can ends up here, crushed and buried. It sits here, forever.

The excursion was organized by the Société environnementale Côte-des-Neiges (SOCENV) . “Quebec produces more garbage per person than any other province,” noted Elisabeth Cordeau, from the SOCENV.

Actually, BFI regularly welcomes visitors, and has a full-time communications person devoted to promoting waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting among citizens and schools. And while André Chulak is doing a great job, the landfill business is not likely to suffer from his efforts. The garbage just keeps on coming.

Most of the site was surprisingly clean and not even smelly. But as our bus rolled through about 2 km of small hills, Chulak reminded us, “Under those hills, that’s all garbage. It can go up to 12 m deep and 40 m high.” Between 500 and 700 trucks dump their loads each day, five and a half days a week. Week after week. Year after year. At the current rate, the Lachenaie site will be full in about 15 years.

1 million people's daily garbage

How it works

The garbage is deposited in cells built like vaults in clay. Beneath these cells, 10 m of clay serves as an impermeable barrier. At the bottom of each cell, a network of drains and pipes collects the leachate, the garbage soup that leaks through when it rains or snows. The leachate is treated in a system of lagoons: a first decants the soup (creating a permanent layer of sediment at the bottom), while two others use aerators to speed up the natural process of bacteria breaking down the organic matter. The water then goes to the local wastewater treatment plant.

That’s why it’s so important not to throw hazardous waste such as batteries, old paint or medicine in with the regular garbage, Chulak stressed. “With the wind and snow and transfer process, some matter inevitably gets into the environment.” He adds that municipal wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to treat such products either. (You can bring them to an eco-centre so that they are disposed of safely.)

Garbage also produces biogas (resulting from the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen), composed mainly of methane and carbon dioxide. This is captured through a system of 300 wells. About 25% of the biogas goes to the site’s power plant, where it is transformed into electricity for over 2,000 homes in the nearby towns of Terrebonne and Mascouche. The rest is burned. It turns into water vapour and carbon dioxide which, in terms of greenhouse gases, pollutes 21 times less than methane, according to the BFI website. “So yes, it still pollutes, but less,” said Chulak. He noted that BFI has plans to transform the remaining biogas into natural gas, which would be more energy-efficient.

Shepherd’s pie

When our bus gets to the section where garbage is currently being dumped, the smell is stronger, but the garbage itself is still not that visible: as soon as it is dumped, a 50-tonne compacter crushes it; when the garbage reaches 3 metres high, it is covered with a layer of dirt and a fluffy material made from recycled (non metal) car parts. “It’s like a shepherd’s pie of garbage,” said Chulak. “3 m of compacted garbage, 50 cm of dirt, repeat until 40 m, then top with 3 m of clay.”

Yet what we do see of the garbage is depressing: it’s easy to make out flattened juice cartons, bits of metal or plastic. “I’d say that 75% of what ends up here could have been composted or recycled,” said Chulak. “Once it’s in the garbage truck, it’s too late.”

Many people think the garbage will eventually disappear, he said. That’s false. Glass, metal and plastic may degrade over time (a long time), but they never disappear. “Once the hole is full, it’s full forever. All we can do is cover it up and build a park or golf course on top of it.”

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