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Toronto goes green

City government credited with decreasing the size of our footprint on the environment
Published On Tue Oct 02 2007

Green thumbs up, Toronto!

Despite increased air pollution, the city's environment is improving on many fronts, the latest Vital Signs report reveals.

The report shows:
Our residential water consumption was down to 248 litres per person a day in 2006 – 11 litres less than the year before.

Our beaches are cleaner. In 2006, they were open 72 per cent of the time on average, up from 58 per cent in 2005.

We're sending less garbage to landfill – diverting 42 per cent of our trash through recycling and composting in 2006, compared to 32 per cent in 2003.

We are littering less.

In the face of all this, environmentalists are sounding alarmingly optimistic.

"There's no doubt there have been improvements," says Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, which only a year ago condemned the city for inaction on smog.

"It's really important to acknowledge when governments work with citizens, good things can happen."

The city, most environmentalists agree, is responsible for most of the progress.

By introducing the green bin composting program in Toronto's residential areas, the city has greatly reduced the amount of garbage it sends to landfill – although we are still far from reaching our goal of diverting 60 per cent.

The city's aggressive water efficiency programs have paid off early. By the end of last year, we'd already reached our 2011 goal of cutting water use by 15 per cent – from 1.3 billion to 1.17 billion litres a day. That's mostly been through the city's rebate programs for both residents and businesses.

Since it was introduced three years ago, the city has issued 205,000 rebates to people for replacing their old, water-guzzling toilets with low-flush models. As each new toilet will save the city from cleaning, pumping and treating as much as 84 litres of water a day, it adds up, says Lou Di Gironimo, the city's general manager of water.

"Because we're using less water, we're also using less electricity," he said.

As for our beaches, they were even cleaner this year. The latest numbers reveal they were open more than 80 per cent of the time – a huge jump from 2004, when they were closed to swimmers for almost half of the summer (45 per cent of the time.)

The city's new infrastructure has paid off, says Sarah Winterton, program manager for Environmental Defence, a group that has pushed the city to clean up its beaches for years.

In the past, many of our beaches teamed with a toxic stew of sewage, garbage and pesticides after a big rainstorm, as rainwater would overwhelm treatment facilities, and discharge directly into rivers, creeks and the lake.

But, since last year, the Western Beaches storage tunnel has been in full capturing operation. It's a series of huge underground tanks and tunnels that can hold back most of the extra storm water for treatment.

"That's had a huge impact," says Winterton.

The one area where we're lagging, according to the report, is air pollution. Though 2006 was less smoggy than 2005, that had nothing to do with decreased air pollution.

"It was totally based on meteorology," says Eva Ligeti, executive director of the City of Toronto's Clean Air Partnership.

Smog is created when certain pollutants bake in the sun. And it is only washed away by great winds or rainstorms. So 2005, the hottest and driest summer on record, had a record 48 smog-advisory days. Last year, that number was down to 11 – the lowest since 2000. But this year, we have already reached 27.

That's mostly because there are more cars on the city's roads spewing exhaust, as well as more electricity being generated by coal-fired plants, says Ligeti.

She and others hope that will change, now that the city has passed its climate change action plan, which includes programs to cut down on air pollution. But, given the city's current budget crunch, there's no certainty that it will be funded.

"There are a lot of things in Toronto going well," says Environmental Defence's executive director Rick Smith. "But we shouldn't get cocky about it."

As published at: http://www.thestar.com/specialsections/vitalsigns/article/260045--toronto-goes-green

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