Going Up to the Landfill in the Sky

by Delores Broten

Its proponents call it “Waste to Energy” or WTE, but recycling advocates call it “The Landfill in the Sky.” The great incineration debate, which the environmental movement had pretty well won across North America, is back with a vengeance. Metro Vancouver is considering several incinerators as a solution to its municipal solid waste (MSW) garbage problem.

Right now, BC leads North America in responsible actions around waste.

The Extended Producer Responsibility Program requires manufacturers to run “take back” programs for an expanding set of consumer residues, from paint to batteries to electronics. It is through programs like this that BC could eventually land on the negative side of the waste issue  – Zero Waste. 

In the meantime, the landfills are filling, and more jurisdictions are looking to dispose of their waste through assorted forms of burning, be it old fashioned incineration, even older incineration like Green Island Energy’s retrofitted pulp mill at Gold River , or newer concepts like gasification and PlascoEnergy’s plasma gasification conversion of garbage into “products” like syngas.

But even the most advanced incineration schemes resemble a three-for-one pollution option – you get to pollute the land, the air, and the water. This is made abundantly clear by the Recycling Council of British Columbia’s (RCBC) thoughtful examination of Waste to Energy in comparison to landfills. In particular, the report examines Plasco, which is targeting Vancouver among other cities around the world with a heavy sales pitch for its as yet unproven technology. A much-vaunted Ottawa demonstration plant has not yet dealt with fulltime loads of real garbage after 10 months of set up, due to operational problems.

In discussing air pollution, RCBC’s white paper, Examining The Waste-to-Energy Option, states: “If a Plasco facility performs as predicted, heavy metals will primarily be an airborne issue. In a landfill, heavy metals are primarily a water pollution issue. It is not clear which of these scenarios is preferable from a human or ecological health perspective. The priority, therefore, needs to be in removing these metals from the MSW stream in the first place.”

The report goes on to examine the various aspects of pollution, with particular attention to greenhouse gas generation, including trucking.
A big advantage of Waste to Energy is energy production. However, the energy produced is dependent on the energy-intensive materials left in the solid waste – wood, paper, plastic and compostable material, all of which can be largely diverted through recycling programs. Since the bulk of greenhouse gases are released during the initial raw resource extraction of any material, from oil to aluminium, the best line of action is to ensure maximum reuse. Which brings us back to Zero Waste.

Proponents of WTE point out that Europeans run state- of-the-art incinerators to dispose of their waste, but recycling activists assert that in Europe, reuse and recycling initiatives are more advanced than in North America. The entire EU has a target of 50% reduction in MSW by 2020, and countries like the Netherlands and Germany already recycle two-thirds of their materials. Incineration is truly a last resort in Europe.

RCBC says that the use of Waste To Energy does not encourage waste reduction, and that WTE would be quite unnecessary if full extended producer responsibility programs (product stewardship) and full organics diversion were in place. A Zero Waste strategy that relies on reducing, reusing and recycling waste will conserve more energy, produce fewer air pollutants and GHG emissions, and will help solve the residual problem still present in any WTE scenario.

Meanwhile, the Cache Creek landfill environmental assessment is underway to expand by 40 hectares, to take 15 million tonnes of Vancouver’s garbage over the next 20 to 30 years.

If that landfill expansion proceeds, perhaps by the time the great debate re-ignites, the need for sustainable resource use will have become an imperative which makes such waste unthinkable.

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Download the WTE option paper at www.rcbc.bc.ca.
For information on the Plasco process, see www.plascoenergygroup.com

[From WS November/December 2008]

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