Incinerators - Waste-to-Energy Proposals

Joyce Nelson


Across Canada, the US, the UK, Europe, and Asia, communities are facing an unprecedented onslaught of proposals for new incinerators. In July 2008, Friends of the Earth released a map showing dozens of planned new incinerator sites across the UK. The British government has committed billions to new incineration, while cutting budgets for recycling by 30 per cent.

Germany, which already has such an over-capacity of incineration that it imports millions of tonnes of

garbage each year to feed its maw, is nonetheless planning 100 new incinerators.

The Germany waste-disposal industry is lobbying fiercely to get the government out of regulating the sector.

What’s driving this onslaught is a new generation of incinerating technologies that is being touted as the answer to both waste disposal and energy needs. These new technologies – variously called “gasification,” “plasma gasification,” “plasma arc,” “pyrolysis,” “plasma torch,” – are collectively referred to as multi-stage waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. Since these WTE facilities burn waste, we’ll refer to them as incinerators, even though their lobbyists refuse the term.


In Canada, the key lobby group for WTE incinerators is the Canadian Energy From Waste Coalition (see sidebar 1). On June 27, 2009, the Coalition made a presentation to the Metro Vancouver Council-of-Councils. Metro Vancouver is deciding what to do with its municipal solid waste (MSW) and is seriously considering six new WTE incinerators for the region.

Since Metro Vancouver is itself a member of the Canadian Energy From Waste Coalition, the lobbyists appear to have been conveniently lobbying themselves that June day.

This three-part series will look at several members of the Coalition – Aquilini Renewable Energy, Covanta Energy Corp., and, of course, Metro Vancouver – along with another big WTE player, Plasco Energy Group.

A Clean Energy Future?

Faced with climate change, escalating greenhouse gases, and peak oil, governments are attempting to legislate a “clean energy future” that boosts the amount of energy obtained from renewable sources like wind and  solar.

According to WTE industry thinking, garbage should also be seen as a “renewable” source of “clean” energy. Obviously, these proponents want the waste/garbage stream to be never-ending and the burning of it to create new synthetic fuels and generate “green electricity” costed as “clean” for tax breaks, favourable pricing, and preferential treatment.

In the US, the debate is still raging. But in Canada, the federal government appears to have already decided the issue. On August 20, 2008, a Government of Canada news release announced the first project in its “ecoEnergy for Renewable Power” program, which provides $1.48 billion to applicants who can “increase Canada’s supply of clean electricity from renewable sources such as wind, biomass, low-impact hydro, geothermal, solar photovoltaic and ocean energy.”

“Biomass” is industry jargon for food processing waste, agricultural residues, wood waste and waste from forestry operations, and almost every form of “cellulose-based waste.”

To date, neither Scandinavian nor European countries have bothered to obtain much electricity from WTE incinerators. Modern incinerators yield negligible electricity compared to the energy wasted in them and in running them.

A recent background paper by the Recycling Council of BC (RCBC) explains: “Existing WTE facilities with mass-burn technologies, such as those found in Europe and the currently operating Burnaby WTE facility, typically achieve power outputs of about 0.6 MWh/tonne of MSW.” Proponents of next-generation WTE incinerators claim to be able to significantly increase that output.

Fighting For Waste

The amount of energy produced from MSW burned in a WTE facility depends on what’s in the waste. If the waste contains lots of plastics, tires, residual oil, wood waste and paper, then the energy potential in incineration is high. But all of these items -called “feedstocks” in the incinerator industry – are things that could be recycled or dealt with by Extended Producer Responsibility take-back programs.

As the RCBC paper states: “A WTE facility requires the carbon in materials such as paper, plastic and tires to produce energy, yet much more energy would be conserved if these materials were recycled than would be produced if they were destroyed in a WTE facility.”

And now it becomes understandable why the plastics industry is part of the incinerator lobby.

In the UK and Europe, activists are not only fighting incinerators, they’re fighting to keep their recycling programs alive – much less expanding them to include more plastics – in the face of government cuts (as in Britain) and the insatiable maw of next-generation WTE incineration.

For example, in East London, Quebec-based Enerkem Inc. is providing the technology for a $50 million gasification incinerator to burn 90,000 tonnes of pre-sorted MSW annually. The Guardian (Sept. 20, 2006) noted that, “to burn well,” the plant will need significant amounts of paper and plastic – “the argument against it has always been that it will undermine recycling.”

In 2006, the Ontario government began streamlining the approvals process for WTE incinerators, prompting nine environmental and community groups to write to the provincial Ministry of Environment: “The proposed regulatory amendments will weaken the government’s oversight of recycling activities while promoting the burning and/or thermal degradation of municipal waste.”

In 2007, Canadian Business observed that next-generation WTE incinerators “depend on a steady flow of garbage into their plants, so waste diversion programs would actually be undermined” by such facilities.

The industry likes to frame the waste-disposal debate as a choice between incineration or landfill. But what they’re really against is the Zero Waste movement: composting, reducing, re-using, recycling, returning (Extended Producer Responsibility), refusing, and redesigning products to the point where there is negligible garbage to deal with.

Currently, the next-generation WTE incinerator proponents have two strategies: 1) depict themselves as part of “the Zero Waste goal” and 2) lock in long-term contracts for waste.

Burning For Energy

At a July 2009 industry conference, Dino Milli, vice-president of Enerkem, told participants: “Supply agreements that are fixed and long-term are virtually worth their weight in gold.”

Enerkem and partner GreenField Ethanol Inc. recently signed a 25-year contract with the City of Edmonton to annually incinerate 100,000 tonnes of MSW at a new $70 million gasification facility. The carbon-rich feedstock will include contaminated paper and cardboard, textiles, plastics that are not recycled, as well as old utility poles that have been treated with creosote and other chemical preservatives.

According to Enerkem’s own information, the company’s “thermo-chemical biorefinery” pilot project in Sherbrooke, Quebec ran for “more than 3,600 hours” between 2003 and (apparently) 2006. That’s about five-months’ total operating time over several years.

It was on this basis that, in 2006, a corporate spokeswoman sold the idea for a gasification plant to England‘s Thames Gateway Development Corp., claiming gasification was a “well-developed and mature technology” used in a “proven demonstration plant in Canada.”

Enerkem’s demonstration plant in Westbury, Quebec, which did not begin its start-up phase until January 2009, has shown a yield of only 1.3 million gallons/year of “syngas” from biomass.

Nonetheless, the company’s gasification WTE facility has been deemed “proven” by the City of Edmonton, and the world’s first such 25-year waste-to-biofuels gasification contract has been signed with a major municipality.

Enerkem has received millions of dollars in funding from Natural Resources Canada, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Natural Resources Quebec, Alberta Energy Research Institute, and the City of Edmonton.

The Achilles’ Heel

Along with the proceeds from selling “green electricity” to the grid and “syngas” to refineries, next-generation WTE proponents expect big money from these long-term contracts signed by municipalities to provide a set supply of MSW for many years, or pay the consequences. These “put or pay” contracts (which also demand large “tipping fees” for each tonne of garbage taken at the site) are part of the reason that several municipalities – for example, Port Moody, BC, and in Ontario, Halton Region, Niagara Region, and Toronto – have backed away from incineration, for now.

According to Dr. Paul Connett, a US expert on incineration, for the taxpayers, an incinerator is an “economic disaster,” but for some people an incinerator is a “gravy train.”

That “gravy train” is on a collision course with communities across Canada, especially in terms of environmental and public health issues, issues that will be explored throughout this series.

In 2005, another industry lobby group, Ontario Environment Industry Association (to which Plasco Energy Group belongs) commissioned a report on next-generation WTE incinerators, written by University of Western Ontario professor Andrew Knox.

In his report Knox looked at gasification, pyrolysis, plasma converters, and stated clearly: “Dioxins are strongly connected to EFW [energy-from-waste] incineration in particular as not only are the dioxins existing in waste emitted by incinerators, but new dioxins and furans are created during the burning of waste. As more information about the effects of dioxins and furans is gathered they may be revealed as the Achilles’ heel of incineration.” (my emphasis)

These guys know they’re poisoning us. As the popular button states:  “God Recycles/The Devil Burns.”


Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer, visual artist, and author of five books.

Selected Sources

Jordan Best for the Recycling Council of BC, Examining The Waste-To-Energy Option, October, 2008.

Lynn Moore, “‘It Will Be A Fight For Feedstock,’ International Conference Told,” The Gazette, July 22, 2009.

“Garbage Power,” Canadian Business,  Nov. 5, 2007.

Mike Breslin, “Waste Conversion Into Fuel Skyrockets,” American Recycler, May 2009.

Andrew Knox, An Overview of Incineration and EFW Technology as Applied to the Management of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), February 2005.

[From Watershed Sentinel, November/December, 2009]

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