Round Table: Eliminating Vancouver’s Waste

Vancouverites produce one million tonnes of garbage every year, and what to do with it has become a political hot potato. Our panel of experts flesh out plans to significantly reduce this number and develop opportunities to turn the remaining trash into cash.

Vancouver landfill in Delta | BCBusiness
Garbage is compacted at the 225-hectare Vancouver landfill in Delta.

Vancouverites produce one million tonnes of garbage every year, and what to do with it has become a political hot potato. Our panel of experts flesh out plans to significantly reduce this number and develop opportunities to turn the remaining trash into cash.

Vancouverites love to think that their city is on its way to becoming the world’s greenest, but it’s a distinction that means much more than an abundance of bike lanes and community gardens. Even after recycling, Metro Vancouver produces more than one million tonnes of garbage a year. One-third of that waste goes to Burnaby’s waste- to-energy facility to be incinerated, while the rest is trucked to two landfills: one in Delta and another in Cache Creek. While landfills can be expanded, that’s a short-term solution. Meanwhile, the residents of Delta are not keen to continue receiving Metro Vancouver’s waste, and those living in the Fraser Valley, downwind of the incinerator, have an ongoing concern about the quality of the air drifting their way. So how can our waste stream be better handled if Vancouver is to remain a global model of green solutions? We assembled a panel of three experts to delve into the issue: Tom Land is the vice-president and general manager of a Richmond landfill that accepts construction waste called Ecowaste Industries Ltd., Paul Henderson is the manager of Metro Vancouver’s Solid Waste Department and Peter Judd is the general manager of engineering with the City of Vancouver. 

Since waste disposal is so complex, can we start with an overview of the state of the industry in Vancouver?

Paul Henderson: Within Metro Vancouver there’s a population of about 2.2 million people. The disposal system is a series of seven transfer stations spread all over the region and those receive waste. They also have recycling infrastructure in place at the transfer stations. From those transfer stations waste flows to one of three places. The Metro Vancouver waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby processes around 300,000 tonnes a year of waste, about 30 per cent of the region’s total. The Vancouver landfill, which is owned and operated by the City of Vancouver and located in Delta, receives roughly 450,000 tonnes a year of waste and the remaining garbage is shipped to Cache Creek. In 2012 we’re expecting around 200,000 tonnes of waste to be shipped to Cache Creek. In 2011 a new plan was approved for Metro Vancouver to manage the region’s waste by the minister of the environment, the goal being to be at 70 per cent recycling by 2015 and 80 per cent by 2020. The goal is by 2020 to have only about 100,000 tonnes of waste going to landfill.

What’s the current capacity of our two landfills, and how much longer will they be able to receive a portion of the region’s waste?

Henderson: Really, within that plan it won’t actually be capacity that drives the amount of waste going to landfill by 2020; it will be all those waste-reduction and recycling initiatives and developing new waste-energy capacity. That’s what Metro Vancouver is working on now. The actual landfill capacity, under our plan, will effectively be able to provide that disposal capacity indefinitely.

Peter Judd: It’s pretty complicated getting from where we are to that result. There’s a lot of work to be done. If we continued disposing at the rate that we’re disposing, what would it be, 40 or 50 years?

Henderson: The Vancouver landfill, carrying on at the current rate, would take us to around 2065. 

Judd: If we follow the plan – and we intend to be successful at doing that – capacity isn’t the issue. But Delta is growing; they’re developing and they’re uneasy about being the recipient of the region’s waste. At some point we’ll have to develop a new agreement with them and there will be challenges around that. We have to recognize that that’s an issue. People don’t necessarily want to be the recipient of the region’s garbage.

Other than reducing our landfill waste, what do we stand to gain from initiatives like the waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby?

Judd: To me, that is the really interesting part: what can you do with waste that’s being produced beyond reusing and recycling? There are a lot of potential synergies with other things that we’re doing, like community energy systems. I don’t know if you know about the neighbourhood energy system we built that serves the Olympic Village. That particular one uses waste heat from the sewer system. We’re looking at a number of other systems in different places around the city that potentially use other fuels. If you can co-locate systems that produce gas, say from garbage, and use that to produce community energy, that’s looking at things in much more of a systems way than we have in the past.

Tom Land: And that’s somewhat where we fit into the model here, because we deal mainly with construction and demolition and what we deem to be inert wastes. The Vancouver landfill and Cache Creek take household garbage, that sort of thing. In our case, we’re not permitted to do that; we only take construction and demolition waste and soils that are associated with that. So an exciting thing coming along right now is we’re starting to work with another private-sector organization to take the wood out of the waste stream that we’re receiving in the landfill and look at the opportunity to grind that material and use it for district heating applications. There seems to be quite an appetite for that in our region in general. We’re looking at – and this is a guess – 150,000 and 200,000 tonnes a year of wood waste that can be used for other applications, rather than just putting it in the landfill.

There’s been talk of a wood disposal ban being implemented by 2015. What would be included in this?

Land: I just got more information on that the other day. My understanding is that’s from construction waste only. The demolition stream, the wood from houses and buildings that are being demolished is, as I understand it, not included in that.

Henderson: I hadn’t heard anyone had decided that the wood-waste ban would be restricted to any particular materials, but that is what we’ll have to work through between now and 2015. Some wood is much easier to recycle; clean wood is much easier to recycle than painted wood so we’re working through what exactly will be banned, because on the ground, the people who are delivering the services have to understand what the requirements are.

Private companies are an essential component of recycling and waste-to-energy initiatives. What are the incentives to get into the market?

Land: The regional tipping fee has gone up from $65 a tonne, which it had been at for decades, to $107 a tonne now – a 65 per cent increase in about four years. That’s grabbed a lot of attention. You had a lot of businesses that were sitting on the sidelines before, going, “Why would we do this? Landfilling is still your cheapest option. We’re not even going to touch that.” We’ve seen close to a 30 per cent reduction, as I understand it, in waste over the last three or four years, without really doing anything other than the programs that were already in place. We’re now talking about going to 70 and 80 per cent recyclables, which obviously is going to drive some other issues. The sheer fact is that you’ve got a huge fixed cost to run these facilities and your tipping fee has to go up because the tonnage is going down, and that in itself has given lots of opportunities for the private sector to say, “I can take that component at that pricing. I can now charge that at my gate and bring it into my facility and process it.

Henderson: It feels like it’s a combination of prohibitions and the pricing. Obviously for mattresses it was the prohibition that drove the industry. For other things the pricing signal is really substantial as a driver. Just yesterday I toured the Harvest Power facility in Richmond. They’re well under construction of an anaerobic digester. They’re building a new facility within their existing facility that will process food scraps combined with yard trimmings to generate methane. Anaerobic digestion generates methane – it’s actually the same thing that happens in a landfill. With an anaerobic digester, all the methane that is generated is captured and then their facility will drive an engine that will generate electricity. They were saying yesterday that later this year the facility will be operating and generating around one megawatt of power, which is several hundred homes’ worth of electricity. That never would have been possible in the historic environment we had of low tipping fees.

Judd: I was talking to a fellow last week from Thailand and he’s basically evangelical about zero waste. When he says zero waste, he means zero waste.  In a number of cities there are plants that take absolutely everything out of the waste stream and recycle it. It’s not subsidized; he’s doing that because he gets revenues that pay for that. What we’re seeing here, as the cost of disposal goes up and as there’s more prohibitions, is a lot of companies starting up that are looking at niches, where money could be made doing this and where products can be recycled.


Image: Paul Joseph
(From left) Round Table panellists Paul Henderson, Peter Judd and Tom Land.

Is it important to keep our waste management close to home, or should we be thinking more in a regional context?

Henderson: We have to consider both in- and out-of-region options in developing energy capacity. I believe that’s the most appropriate approach from a whole range of perspectives. A job in Gold River is exactly the same as a job in Vancouver. So for me it’s not really about being able to manage all our waste within a little envelope; it’s more about ensuring it’s the best environment, the triple bottom line approach. You get the best solution, and that’s not necessarily a local solution. Obviously there’s a whole bunch of benefits by managing materials locally, like you reduce transportation. But you have to look at the entire picture. You can’t just put a little fence around it and say, “This is what we’re going to do because it’s better to do it within our community.” That’s definitely the perspective of our plan.

Judd: I do think though that there are a lot of communities that are not keen on having other people’s waste shipped into their community, so from that perspective, I think the more that we can deal with our own problems and our own issues locally, the better. Transportation, obviously, is an issue if you’ve got to move it elsewhere. From our perspective, a key part of council’s Greenest City Action Plan is creating green jobs in the city. Some of the new companies starting up around waste are part of that. As much as we possibly can, I’d like to see that in Vancouver. Another aspect of that is the connection with community energy. For us to be successful in reducing our greenhouse gases associated with building heating in the city, you need fuels to do that and some of that has to be from waste or from sewage processing.


Land: As far as out-of-region transportation and shipping it to Northern B.C. or what have you, transportation is one of the big cost drivers in waste management, so to have facilities located close to the source or close to the disposal option is always going to make the entire system more cost effective.  So yes, we ship a certain amount of material to Cache Creek, although that’s diminishing now. There’s some material that’s shipped to landfills in Washington and Oregon via rail. Again, as I understand it, a very cost-effective solution because you can move a lot of material for a very low price on rail, but again, is it the right thing to do? Are those materials that we can take advantage of as we go forward with this new mindset about reusing materials in the region? What I really see happening in the region is just much more of an internal focus: what can be done? What green jobs can we create? What can we do to manage our own waste within our own backyard rather than sending it somewhere else?

Our Round Table Panellists

Paul Henderson: Manager of Metro Vancouver’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Peter Judd: General manager of engineeriing with the City of Vancouver.

Tom Land: Vice-president and general manager of Ecowaste Industries Ltd., a Richmond landfill that accepts construction waste.

Judd: Imagine if within a number of blocks in the city you could take the waste and use a small reactor to create gas and energy to heat the buildings and heat the water in the buildings. I think that’s a potential future and possibly one that would be more attractive to a lot of people, rather than building a large incinerator. One of the tensions around the plan now is the idea that we need to build one great big incinerator, and there are challenges with that. People are uncomfortable with the emissions from that – notwithstanding that you can scrub it and you can show that the emissions are acceptable, but there is still discomfort. I think the more that you can separate things out – use the wood waste productively, use the food scraps for compost or for creating gas, get the recyclables out – I think people are going to be much more comfortable with that. And I think those are things that can be done in smaller plants, locally.

Henderson: The existing waste-energy facility is something called a mass burn facility. With a mass burn facility what happens is you take all of the waste that’s left after all the recycling activities and it goes directly into a combustion chamber. Then the waste burns and there’s a whole series of pipes that have water in them that are heated up by that combustion process. In the case of the Burnaby facility this generates electricity. 

But won’t burning waste to produce energy always have a public backlash, no matter how good the controls are?

Henderson: That’s why what we’re contemplating in the solid waste management plan is a full range of waste-to-energy technology solutions, and some of them don’t involve combustion at all. People consider the standard waste-to-energy incineration the mass burn technology solution, but there are all kinds of other solutions, like gasification. What happens there is the waste is heated up at relatively low temperatures and produces a gas that’s combustible. In the facility in Edmonton that’s being constructed, that gas will be converted to ethanol and then used as a fuel. There’s a whole range of technologies and that’s what we’ll go through in this process, determining what is the most suitable technology to meet our needs.

Judd: Even with burning, there’s a substantial difference in people’s minds between just taking everything that comes in and burning that, versus separating out the components and creating a predictable product where you know you can control the emissions. That’s the idea with wood: you take the wood out and chip it – that’s a known quantity. I was talking to a company the other day about potentially taking what comes out of our litter containers, and you can create a fuel out of that. It’s a known quantity when it comes to emissions and you can deal with that.

Do you expect private business to continue to become more involved in the process?

Judd: The role of government, as I see it, is to set the stage and be a catalyst, like the province has done. They’ve said, “Okay, these are our expectations,” and turned it over to the industry to figure out how to actually do it. And through that process it creates huge opportunities for new businesses and green businesses. At the end of the day, the innovation and the jobs come from the private sector, not from government.

Henderson: The private sector has always been very heavily involved in the waste sector from a collection and a processing perspective. I think what’s shifted over the years is we’ve gone from really disposal-focused private-sector involvement – just collecting garbage and it being shipped for disposal – to this much broader role of the private sector. Every time you go down into an industrial area in any city you find recycling businesses. It’s a huge industry with lots more opportunity.

Land: I think the private sector is much more nimble when it comes to being able to change gears. If you see an opportunity and the size of the investment to take advantage of that opportunity is reasonable, you can move on it fairly quickly. A good example is a year and a half ago when we were talking about mattress bans. Metro Vancouver has to go through a whole bylaw process in order to be able to do something about that, to introduce a new fee. Of course, all of that takes time and you want to be careful about how you do that and make sure consultation takes place. When the topic was first raised, within a week of having raised that topic we did exactly that. We were probably eight months in front of Metro Vancouver actually introducing the first bylaw on that. For us, it was a no-brainer. That’s a very simple example of how the private sector can get out there and lead the way. Having guiding documents like the regional solid waste plan is great because it sets that framework. You can see where things are going, you know what the opportunities are and if it makes sense to you from a business perspective. I think there are a lot of opportunities. I think there are a lot of jobs that can and will be created as a result of the upcoming changes. I see government’s role more as setting the stage and regulating, as opposed to being the doers.

Judd: It’s a pretty exciting time in the industry. There are a lot of things that we can’t foresee around what could happen, but I think there’s huge opportunity here. Look at places like Southeast Asia, where they’re using everything; there’s zero waste to the point where they’re mining old landfills to get the waste out of them. We can see ourselves getting there as well.