JANUARY 22, 1999


UVic researchers assess efficiency of Canada's aging landfills

by Patty Pitts

Canada's landfills are aging, it's more expensive to dump garbage in Ontario than anywhere else in the country, and if there's a union driver behind the wheel of the compactor at the local landfill, chances are it's one of the more productive operations in the country.

Those are just some of the findings in a recently published report on the efficiency of Canada's landfills, conducted by UVic's local government institute.

To produce the report, institute co-director Dr. Jim McDavid and research assistant Verna Laliberté distributed their 44-page national solid waste landfill survey to 297 Canadian landfill managers. Despite the length of the survey, 72 were returned, an impressive 24 per cent response rate.

"We could have had a higher return rate with a shorter survey but we didn't want to compromise the study," says McDavid. "No one else had done this kind of research before and we wanted to make sure it was thorough and covered the right ground."

To determine the overall efficiency of Canada's landfills, the researchers focused on the overall cost per tonne to process landfill garbage from coast to coast. "We picked a measurement most managers could relate to," says McDavid, "and we determined which factors do the best job of predicting landfill costs per tonne." To do this, McDavid and Laliberté reviewed existing research (including the institute's previous survey on residential solid waste collection conducted two years ago) and tested their draft survey with local landfill managers, who provided input for additional and adjusted questions.

The surveys, distributed in the fall of 1997, quizzed managers about their landfill operation, including equipment, staff and the extent of private sector involvement. As an incentive to complete the lengthy survey, managers were promised individualized reports specific to the efficiency of their landfills in exchange for participation in the survey. The institute also agreed that the list of participants remain confidential.

The survey concluded that: the average age of a sampled landfill in 1995 was 19.5 years and had 14 years remaining in its projected lifespan; nearly one quarter of the landfills had five years or less remaining in their lifespan; and 41 per cent will run out of space in the next 10 years.

Nationwide, the average cost of processing solid waste landfill was $21.97 per tonne in 1995. Ontario had the highest average cost at $28.49 per tonne. In B.C. it costs an average of $19.17.

Sampled landfills typically operate with a mix of public workers and contracted forces and it was the analysis of unionized workers that gave McDavid his biggest surprise.

"Unionized work forces at landfills cost less on a per tonne basis than non-union workers. That's a change from our last survey where unionized workers took a bit of a hit because we reported they decreased the efficiency of residential pickup," says McDavid. "The average cost per tonne at landfills where all workers are unionized is $19.84. The cost per tonne for a non-union workforce is $23.84. Even in landfills operated primarily by public workers, fully unionized operations cost $20.37 compared to $26.00 for non-union landfills."

Another variable affecting the efficiency of a landfill is restrictions on paper, glass, metals or plastics. As the number of restrictions increases, so does the cost per tonne. McDavid is quick to point out that the survey was intended to assess the landfills' short-term operating, not environmental, efficiency. The institute is already at work on a new survey that will provide more answers on the cost of refuse separation.

"Our third survey will be on residential recycling and in some respects it will be the most interesting of all," says McDavid. "We're looking at what is recycled, the quantities, the methods of collection and the cost of recycling versus the revenue it generates."

McDavid and his colleagues are currently analysing data from 121 participating municipalities and a final report is expected in the spring.

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