A pink, foamy kids’ chair, the kind of cheap prize won at a carnival ball-toss, stands out in the sea of plastic, cardboard and other unidentifiable refuse in the cavernous garbage pit at the Burnaby incinerator.
A giant grappler crane reaches down, scoops up a metal mittful of the stuff and drops it in a chute that leads to one of three furnaces, where 1,150-degree-Celsius heat reduces it to ash, gas and incombustible metal rubble.
The crane operator goes for another load, then another. Employees work in two-hour shifts around the clock at this station, feeding three furnaces and keeping the middle of the pit clear so trucks can keep tipping. The plant runs at capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ken Carrusca, an engineer in Metro Vancouver’s policy and planning department, looks out on the mountain of trash below. “Once it gets here, this is fuel,” he says. “And this is a power plant.” According to Metro Vancouver, the Burnaby facility incinerates 280,000 tonnes of waste a year, or just over 20 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s total, and produces 16.7 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 16,700 homes.
The regional government’s draft management plan indicates a major shift in waste management planning, shifting from reliance on landfilling to incineration, and Covanta, a New Jersey-based company with stakes in B.C., is well positioned to take advantage of expansion opportunities.
Although Metro Vancouver staff are pitching the technology as an environmentally and economically sound investment, not everyone is convinced. Opponents say the region can – and must – do better than its current recycling targets and that waste-to-energy is a disincentive to improve. These zero-wasters have found an unlikely alliance in the traditional waste management sector: landfill operators and recyclers who also have a vested interest in keeping their share of the waste stream. Now each side is pitting expert against expert, study against study, over where the future of waste should lie. The debate raises questions that go beyond a simple either/or choice.
At a fall public forum on waste-to-energy, Marvin Hunt sets the scene. The region’s recycling rate is now 55 per cent, explains the chair of Metro Vancouver’s waste management committee. The objective, as outlined in the 2008 Zero Waste Challenge, is to increase that to 70 per cent over the next five years. Even if this target is achieved, he emphasizes – with a growing population and increasing per capita consumption – our total volume of waste is expected to get larger: we will still have an additional million tonnes of waste to deal with. And we’re running out of room for it all.
Metro’s waste strategy identifies some steps to encourage reduction, reuse and recycling, and also introduces a fourth R: recovery. This is where waste-to-energy comes in. It is proposed as a means to reduce the volume of waste and extract the most energy from it, before what’s left is finally landfilled. A draft solid-waste management plan released by Metro Vancouver last November proposes the construction of one or more new waste-to-energy incinerators within the region by 2015 capable of processing up to 500,000 tonnes of garbage per year.
Metro proposes disposing of the resulting waste (incineration typically produces about 20 tonnes of ash for every 100 tonnes of garbage) in the Vancouver landfill, and seeking a replacement once that site reaches its capacity.
Environment Minister Barry Penner must first approve the plan on a conceptual level – making sure that Metro’s numbers add up, that it has assessed any environmental impacts and adequately consulted the public – before the regional district moves forward.
Hunt stresses that staff are not currently deciding on specific technologies, though it’s not for want of proposals. Five hundred thousand tonnes of new capacity in the Lower Mainland would nearly double the waste-to-energy capacity in the entire country. According to Environment Canada, there are only seven waste-to-energy plants currently operating, and the last one was built in 1995.
Metro Vancouver has been flooded with proposals from would-be technology providers, according to Hunt. He says he’s heard outlandish promises before, describing too-good-to-be-true technology that promises to vaporize waste with zero emissions. Last year Rod Bryden, an Ottawa businessman who owns the city’s NHL franchise and its only waste-to-energy plant, offered to build – for free – a similar facility in Port Moody. Council ultimately turned it down, and the technology has so far proved commercially unviable.
Covanta proposals say it has the right solution for the region. The company, which recently made a $450-million deal to buy seven waste-to-energy plants (including the Burnaby incinerator) from Veolia Environment, has partnered with B.C.’s Green Island Energy to build a new waste-to-energy facility in Gold River on Vancouver Island. That facility, which has been in development for 10 years, could incinerate 500,000 to 750,000 tonnes of waste and generate 90 megawatts of electricity annually.
“We have the material permits in place, we have a power purchase agreement, a willing host, and if we were able to get an agreement with Metro Vancouver, we could be up and running by the end of 2013,” says project lead Tom Lyons. “We’re here to stay, and we think we have the right long-term solution for Metro and all those other municipalities on the island.”
Although owning waste-to-energy facilities and siting them in the region are top priorities for Metro Vancouver staff, it’s not going to be easy to convince the public that this is the right decision. Municipal solid-waste incineration is a polarizing issue and a political hot potato. Environment Minister Barry Penner, the person responsible for approving Metro’s plan, is in a particularly sticky situation: his home riding of Chilliwack is in the heart of the Fraser Valley, where air quality is already a major concern and opposition to incineration is strongest.
Patricia Ross, chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District, has been one of the most vocal critics. She says Metro Vancouver is trying to sell the public on waste-to-energy plants without adequately assessing the environmental impacts of the incineration process.
“Our concern at the Fraser Valley Regional District is as much with the proposal itself as it is with the process,” she says. “The public has never really had a chance to see both sides, and I don’t think the politicians have either. I can’t go anywhere these days without someone walking up to me and thanking me for what I’m doing to try and stop it.”
Even John Foden, executive director of industry interest group the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition, calls it one of the most polarizing issues he’s seen.
Foden acknowledges that the polluting legacy of incinerators like SWARU (the Solid Waste Reduction Unit in Hamilton, Ontario, which until its closure in 2002 was one of the largest single sources of mercury and dioxin emissions in the country) have left the public wary.
But the technology has changed, he argues, and so have the days when municipalities could simply ship their garbage elsewhere. “This isn’t about throwing garbage into a fire. It’s about taking all of the inherent energy in that waste material and turning it into a form of energy that’s beneficial to the community we’re operating in,” says Foden. “There is no point operating these plants if you can’t turn it into electricity, heat, steam, cooling or some other form of energy.”
It was this potential that fuelled a growth spurt in the industry during the 1980s energy crisis. High gas prices ramped up the tipping fee at landfills, and the promise of electricity generation right in their own backyards made the high capital investment more attractive for municipalities. In the U.S., the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act mandated a price structure for waste-to-energy facilities, providing greater financial incentives.
The boom didn’t last. In the ’90s, energy markets deregulated and stricter emissions legislation came into effect. Investment in new, expensive pollution-control technology didn’t make as much sense. According to the Government Advisory Associates, an American consulting firm that serves the public sector, 67 plants in the U.S. have shut down since 1990, all citing economic or environmental reasons. Most that didn’t were snapped up by one of two major players that now dominate the North American waste-to-energy industry: Wheelibrator and Covanta.
Both are exploring even cleaner ways to extract energy from waste, like gasification or pyrolysis, but mass burn technology – the combustion of solid waste at high temperatures – is still the only commercially viable process in North America right now. The combustion of municipal solid waste releases toxins including mercury, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and dioxins into the air.
Roger Quan, manager of air quality planning at Metro Vancouver, says air quality levels would not increase that much with new waste-to-energy plants and points out that a quarter of all of the region’s polluting emissions come from vehicle tailpipes.
According to Environment Canada’s most recent emissions inventory (from 2007) the amount of dioxins from all waste-to-energy plants is so negligible that the agency’s official estimate rounds it off to zero grams per year.
This year Covanta was fined more than $100,000 for violations at five of its U.S. plants. The fines were for emitting excessive levels of nickel, soot, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide and for failure to adequately control smokestack pollutants.
When asked about the fines, Paul Gilman, Covanta’s vice-president of sustainability, says these were short-term violations and the company is taking steps to address them.
“We are operating at about a 99.9 per cent performance in compliance, and our goal is to make that 100 per cent,” he says. “Typically, we are viewed in the industry as the company that if you have an environmental problem, you bring us in to solve it. We’ve developed a proprietary technology to dramatically reduce nox [nitrous oxide] emissions. We’ve got some other things in the works for further mercury reduction, further nox reductions.”
Pollution control technology has advanced “by leaps and bounds” over the past 30 years, Gilman points out, and the Burnaby plant is a good example. It has no violations of its emissions limits and has won several industry awards for environmental best practices. Its good reputation doesn’t come cheap. Since the facility was built in 1987 (at a cost of $75 million) Metro Vancouver has spent another $97 million on pollution control and efficiency upgrades.
Despite high capital costs, Gilman says the potential for renewable energy credits and carbon offsets makes the economics of waste-to-energy more interesting. Certainly, this has been part of the driver in Europe. The European Union’s Landfill Directive mandates that member countries must reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfills by 35 per cent in order to curb methane emissions. There are already between 380 and 400 waste-to-energy facilities in the EU, and some market analysts predict another 100 could be built in the next two years.
Herein lies one of Metro Vancouver’s main arguments for waste-to-energy versus landfilling. When biodegradable material decomposes in a landfill, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas four times more potent than carbon dioxide. When that material is incinerated, it is considered to be greenhouse-gas-neutral because it would have released the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide had it decomposed naturally. Assuming there is a higher percentage of biodegradable material in the waste stream than not – one major study commissioned for Metro Vancouver projected the ratio to be 62 per cent organic, 38 per cent non-organic – waste-to-energy does make more sense.
However, the Burnaby incinerator is currently a net greenhouse gas producer. It emits approximately 110,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide and offsets approximately 41,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in steam and electricity production. Assuming the ratio of organic to non-organic material decreases, the potential for carbon credits from municipal solid-waste incineration decreases.
Jack Bryden, head of the solid and liquid waste unit in the Ministry of Environment, says that while the ministry is still developing policy around the use of municipal solid waste as fuel, “what we can say is that it’s probably the case that the ministry would not consider all municipal solid waste to be renewable fuel . . . not the burning of plastic or non-biogenic waste.”
Ultimately, reducing, reusing and recycling offers the best savings in greenhouse gas emissions, hands down. That raises concerns about how much waste, and what kind of waste, we expect to produce in the future and how that could affect waste-to-energy.
Paul Gilman says Covanta is “extremely supportive of aggressive recycling rates,” and points out that the company has made an effort to get toxic material such as mercury out of the waste stream at some of its facilities by offering residents gift cards in exchange for such items as thermostats. “But there’s going to be a significant amount of solid waste that needs to be addressed in the future.”
Others aren’t so sure. Several Lower Mainland municipalities have recently adopted curbside kitchen waste pickup. The province, already a leader in making producers responsible for taking back products such as tires and paint cans, is extending this program to target plastic packaging as well.
“We know that extended producer responsibility is going to take a bigger and bigger bite out of the waste stream,” says Mairi Welman, director of communications for the Recycling Council of B.C. “We believe we are going to get beyond Metro Vancouver’s stated goal of 70 per cent diversion. That’s when building big new infrastructure starts to become questionable.”
Ted Rattray, president of Belkorp Industries Inc. and owner of the Cache Creek landfill, says he sees more potential in recycling markets, which have currently been hit hard by the global economic downturn.
“If you have the ability to identify, capitalize and build these facilities that can help the consumer recycle materials, there are huge opportunities in terms of creating a green economy in British Columbia,” he says. Rattray believes that landfilling offers more flexibility than waste-to-energy: “Our perspective is landfilling has been a bridge through to the diversion scenario that we see in the future.”
Leaving the Burnaby facility, Ken Carrusca tells me the waste debate raging in Metro Vancouver is like a soap opera. It’s about much more than a decision about how to take out the trash: it’s about how we see ourselves as consumers and producers of waste. “What we’re talking about,” he says, “is our destiny.”