May 20, 2009

Saving 1.5B tonnes of gravel

Jim Harris
Magazine Article

By: Jordana Levine

On April 15, the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) released Dig Conservation, Not Holes: A Report on the GTA’s Thirst for Gravel and How to Quench it. The report shows how the Greater Toronto Area is destroying rural lands and wildlife through its demands for gravel around the city.  The report urges municipalities in the GTA to start using less virgin gravel and more recycled materials to build roads, sidewalks and buildings.  It also says that there should be policies to limit the projected use of 1.5 billion tonnes of aggregate over the next 25 years.[1]

The latest data from The Ontario Aggregate Resources Corporation showed that Ontario used 173 million tones of aggregate in 2007 and, if the estimate is correct, the next 25 years’ worth of aggregate used would be enough to create the equivalent of a 60-foot deep hole roughly 35 square kilometres.[2]   This would fill the area between Toronto’s Bloor Street and the waterfront, between Greenwood Avenue and The Kingsway:

TEA,  recycling

This sort of extraction from the earth could have a devastating impact on the environment and its inhabitants.

As the TEA explains in its report, because the process of retrieving the aggregate impacts the landscape so dramatically, it can have highly detrimental effects on the environment.  Pits or quarries must be created to extract the pebbles, stones, and sand used to make gravel, which impacts everything near, or in the way of, the pit.

Creating the pits means that all plants and soil in the area have to be removed, which can affect the wildlife that depends on the plants.  It also decreases biodiversity because both plants and habitats are ruined in the process.

The pits or quarries also contribute to air, water, and noise pollution in neighbouring ecosystems.  They disturb the movements and the cleanliness of both surface and groundwater, which can damage the health and well being of both animals and humans.  The quality and quantity of drinking water becomes diminished for wildlife living downstream and people who live in the area.

The majority of the aggregate has come from the Greenbelt that surrounds the GTA.  The Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine, two essential parts of the Greenbelt, are home to farmers, rural communities, tourist destinations and diverse ecosystems.   Failure to be sensitive to the impacts of aggregate mining on the Greenbelt, in particular, will have a powerful impact on farming, tourism and the resources that allow Ontarians to thrive.

“We’re just trying to get the concept of recycling through to this industry,” says Jamie Kirkpatrick of the TEA.  “There are some recycling methods that are being used regularly by the municipal decision-makers, but we want to look at the best practices and see those applied as widely as possible.”  Kirkpatrick mentions the UK’s progress, which is used as an example in the TEA’s report, since it has been able to achieve 25% of aggregate demand through recycled material.

“We want to see places like Ontario strive towards goals like that,” Kirkpatrick says.  “To take a look at what we already have used, see what we can reuse, reduce… and then recycle whatever materials we have used that are already reduced.”

The TEA has made four main recommendations that it hopes all municipalities will follow:

  1. Municipalities should require construction companies using aggregate for a project to use the most recycled content allowable for each project.
  2. Municipalities and construction companies should publish detailed information on how aggregate will be used within their municipality, including its type, how much is recycled or from alternative sources, and where the materials are from.
  3. Municipalities should look into how other areas are limiting the use of new materials and try to integrate those practices.
  4. Municipalities should ensure that the three Rs (recycle, reduce, reuse) are an essential part of producing sustainable aggregate.

Fortunately, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation already makes 100% of old or ruined pavement available to contractors so they can combine it with new and recycled materials for roads.  The province uses non-traditional materials, such as roofing shingles, glass and ash.  This saves energy, while taking less away from the environment, leaving more of nature at peace, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would be created if the province manufactured new materials.

“On places like the 400 series highways in Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation, fur a number of years, has been using an in-place recycling method that basically scrapes of the top layer of roadway, either heats it or applies a medium to it, and then replaces the same asphalt as a new road,” Kirkpatrick explains.  “They can achieve nearly 100% recycling.”  He says asphalt is often described as the most recyclable material in North America.

Even with the steps Ontario has taken already, Canada is still far from making aggregate a sustainable resource and has not caught up to the progress of many European countries.  The TEA hopes Dig Conservation, Not Holes will lead to greater things.

“If we create a bigger value for this material and we put more restrictions on where virgin aggregate can be extracted from, we’ll see this greater interest in using more recycled materials,” Kirkpatrick hopes.  “And maybe then they’ll start treating it like a resource as opposed to just a waste… and hopefully a few less holes in the Greenbelt.”

“With this report, we were just taking… the first step.  Here’s what municipalities can do now,” says Kirkpatrick.

1  TEA, Dig Conservation, Not Holes, Apr 2009.
2  David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario’s Wealth Canada’s Future, Sept 2008.
3  Ministry of Transportation, Southern Highways Program 2008 to 2012, 20 Feb 2009.

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