Recovering energy and resources from garbage

Like many urban regions in other countries with high recycling rates, Metro Vancouver has determined that Waste to Energy is the most environmentally responsible and cost effective means of dealing with garbage that cannot yet be recycled.

A recent opinion asserts that additional Waste to Energy facilities in our region will somehow reduce recycling and require out-of-region imports of trash.

That assertion – an argument adopted by companies that profit when garbage is buried in distant landfills – is not backed up by facts, in this region and other countries.

Metro Vancouver’s recycling rates have steadily increased since the 1988 opening of its existing Waste to Energy Facility in Burnaby.

The countries with some of the world’s highest recycling rates are also those with the highest Waste to Energy recovery rates (Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium). There are now more than 600 Waste to Energy Facilities in North America, Europe and Asia.

The best way to manage residual waste in our region has been discussed and studied for many years.

In 2008, the Metro Vancouver Board of Directors took the bold decision to abandon disposal of residual waste at a landfill in BC’s Interior.

We appointed independent consultants to carry out analysis of a broad range of treatment options for managing the region’s waste. The conclusion was that new waste-to-energy capacity was the best solution based on several factors, including cost, air emissions, health and environmental impact.

Then, in 2010, Metro Vancouver’s Board of Directors approved a new Integrated Solid Waste and Resource Management Plan with four goals:

  • minimize waste generation;

  • maximize reuse, recycling and material recovery;

  • recover energy from the waste stream after material recycling; and

  • dispose of all remaining waste in landfill, after material recycling and energy recovery.

Existing and planned recycling and reuse efforts are effectively removing resources from the waste stream before disposal. Organics programs are transforming food scraps and yard trimmings into compost and energy-rich biofuel.

The region has even spearheaded, through formation of the National Zero Waste Council, efforts to encourage more energy and resource-efficient product and packaging designs.

But the fact remains that there is no way, in the foreseeable future, to simply make all waste disappear.

Even after reducing per capita disposal and achieving an ambitious waste diversion rate of 80 per cent, Metro Vancouver will still need to manage 700,000 tonnes of garbage each and every year.

So the question is not whether the communities of Metro Vancouver are committed to achieving the highest possible rates of waste diversion. They most certainly are. Rather, the question is about the most effective means of managing the inevitable volumes of waste that remain.

And in the event that we are able to reduce waste volumes beyond our 80 per cent target, then we can begin to phase out modules of the Burnaby facility in favour of the new state of the art processes being considered now.

Waste to Energy facilities are the best choice.

Best for the environment and best for taxpayers.

Indeed, a high-level analysis of potential waste management options by an independent consultant puts the cost of landfilling for 35 years at more than $1 billion, while waste to energy can be expected to result in a small surplus over that same period.

Metro Vancouver’s existing Waste to Energy Facility in Burnaby is proof of that. Electricity generated is enough to power 16,000 homes, along with the recovery of metals and other materials of value. The facility provides revenue that makes it the lowest cost disposal option of our entire regional solid waste system.

And, as the result of its advanced and continuously improving pollution control technologies, the Burnaby facility has an excellent environmental performance record and no discernable impact on air quality.

Landfills, in contrast, produce very little in the way of revenue and in fact are a continuing, and significant source of costs. Those costs include liability that persists for decades following closure.

They are also prodigious sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a GHG potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide. The garbage going to landfills also includes materials that would be more effectively treated at the very high temperatures common to environmentally safe Waste to Energy processes.

These are some of the reasons why Metro Vancouver is developing additional waste to energy capacity, just as it is looking for opportunities to capture heat from sewers and generate biogas from the fats, oils and grease that clog our sewers.

Waste to Energy is better than burying our garbage . . . and throwing away energy and resources, along with our trash.

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