Council passes clear garbage bag policy, delays votes on more controversial proposals

CAO Richard Butts begins to implement his cost-cutting proposals for the landfill.

Garbage issues were front and centre at City Hall Tuesday, as Halifax council began dealing with a set of proposals put forward by CAO Richard Butts to fundamentally change how the landfill operates.

In the 1990s, Halifax opened the Otter Lake Landfill. To maintain the highest environmental standards, the landfill included a front end processor, where workers manually sort through the in-coming trash to take out recyclables, toxics and organics that were not properly sorted by residents. Additionally, the surrounding community was promised that the landfill would be closed by 2024.

click to enlarge Council passes clear garbage bag policy, delays votes on more controversial proposals
Richard Butts
Just as Halifax was creating its “world-class” waste system, Butts was an vice-president with Waste Management in Ontario. In 1998, the city of Toronto hired him to oversee the controversial plan to ship garbage to Michigan. He soon moved up in that city’s bureaucracy to become deputy city manager, but was part of the exodus of city managers who left after Rob Ford was elected mayor. Butts was hired as Halifax CAO in 2011, but he continues to live in Toronto, commuting to Halifax every Monday morning and flying back home every Friday afternoon. When he was hired, Halifax council directed him to cut costs wherever he could. Last year, he took aim at landfill operations.

There’s been an evolution in how Butts performs at council. At first, when he addressed council, he would stand respectfully, and behaved as a true public servant. Within a year, however, he stopped standing, and merely directed his staff. By six months ago he was noticeably bored at council meetings, and recently he's been witnessed nodding asleep.

Tuesday, Butts took the unprecedented step of giving the 45-minute staff presentation on the proposed landfill changes himself. He wants nine specific changes, all with the end goal of closing the front end processor, and extending the life of the landfill, potentially to 2059. He says this will save the city up to $309 million between now and 2015. Critics say the financial savings are inflated, and the proposed changes violate the terms of the 1990s’ agreements, especially related to the life of the landfill.

Council was sympathetic to the first six of the nine proposals, all of which are designed to improve the rates of recyclable and organics diversion, and which were adopted without much debate. The most controversial of the six is a requirement that residents use clear plastic bags, with one smaller opaque bag allowed within each clear bag. Even though council has approved the proposal, the change to clear bags requires a change in a city bylaw, which in turn requires a public hearing, probably this summer. The actual requirement will be enforced six to nine months after that.

The remaining three proposals are very controversial. They include a change in policy to allow commercial waste haulers to ship garbage out of HRM, closing the front end processor and extending the size and lifetime of the landfill. Council will debate these proposals at future meetings.

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