This Article is part of the Up in Smoke special report See the full report

As Europe shies away from burning trash, Metro Vancouver gears up for $480m waste-to-energy incinerator

Fifth in a three-month series.

(Page 2 of 3)

In the 1990s, governments throughout Europe and in North America offered tax incentives and subsidies to companies and local governments willing to invest in waste-to-energy incinerators.

This “renewable” energy source took off, and today there are 400 incinerators in 17 countries, generating a portion of their energy needs. Germany is the most aggressive. The country has 72 waste-to-energy plants, followed by Sweden (31), Denmark (29), the United Kingdom (24) France (17) and the Netherlands (12).

Some of these countries have become so efficient at incinerating waste for electricity that they are running out of their own garbage. Sweden now imports 80,000 tonnes a year from other countries to keep their burners going 24 hours a day. Norway is also importing garbage.

Waste-to-energy incinerators in Europe

But recently, the European parliament has called on the European Commission to draft proposals by the end of this year to phase out land filling of recyclable and recoverable waste by 2020 and discourage incineration of this waste.

Denmark is one of the first countries to announce a shift in what has been a long-standing energy policy across Europe.

In a “new approach to waste,” the government is now trying to change a whole national mindset. The former 36-year old minister of environment decreed the country will recycle more and incinerate less in the future. No more will Danes continue burning valuable materials while adding to the country’s CO2 emissions. Their goal is to achieve 50 per cent recycling by 2020 and no incinerators by 2050.

“Recycling should be common sense and come to us naturally,” says Denmark’s former environment minister Ida Auken, who had pushed for a 'paradigm shift' in Denmark to move the country toward recycling. “Danes will have to sort more of their waste."

The bigger picture: Canada

In Canada, eight municipal-waste incinerators, including one in Burnaby, are burning approximately 27 million tonnes of garbage and waste per year.  Last month, Iqaluit passed a new waste management plan that includes a $14 million incinerator; double the cost of a rejected plan that proposed land filling, composting and recycling. But by contrast, the City of Markham, Ontario, claims it has reached its zero-waste target, without incineration.

Metro Vancouver's Burnaby waste-to-energy incinerator. Photo: Zack Embree

United States

In the US, more than half of all waste is dumped in landfills, and about 12 per cent is burned. There are 89 trash burning incinerators consuming municipal garbage every day from Alaska to Florida. Many of these incinerators, including 10 in the state of New York alone, are run by large corporations like Wheelabrator and Covanta, two proponents for the proposed new Metro Van incinerator. The US boom began in 2004 when the federal government allowed waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration companies to claim a tax credit for creating a renewable source of energy. It’s a tax break that many environmental organizations oppose.

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