I thought readers might be interested in notes I made at Americana 2007, where I was the “waste analyst” for the conference sessions pertaining to waste management. Despite spending quite a bit of time on the trade show floor, I managed to attend many of the conference sessions, and certainly all the sessions that struck me as the most interesting. The event generated what may be a year’s worth of article leads! So watch for some interesting material in upcoming editions of our magazines.
At the request of the conference organizers, I gathered my notes into the form of a short article that will be edited into a forthcoming edition of a Quebec-based environmental services magazine — Vecteur environnement. Thanks to my hosts, also, at RÉSEAU environnement, the environmental trade association that organized the conference and trade show, and especially Raphael Bruneau who introduced me around and invited me to the final luncheon where I appeared on a wrap-up panel with “analysts” from other conference streams.
Reflections on the Waste Management sessions of Americana 2007
By Guy Crittenden, waste analyst
The conference sessions at Americana 2007 that concerned solid waste management, taken as a whole, suggested that the industry is in a period of quite dramatic transition — from a previous system in which the only value of garbage was the collection, transportation and disposal fees charged by waste haulers, to a new system in which waste is regarded as a valuable resource. The new market for waste is dynamic and is being influenced by new technologies such as those that better sort recyclable or compostable materials from the waste stream, and thereby divert them from landfill disposal, and those that capture the energy embodied in waste, such as thermal treatment systems for garbage residuals, and systems to capture methane gas at landfills to generate power.
Simply put, an industry that used to be merely a low-tech municipal service is now going high-tech and is increasingly attracting investment from the private sector.
Opinions differ, however, as to what the value of waste really is, and from the different presentations one could detect some important and conflicting trends that will play themselves out in the decade to come.
For example, the audience was treated to an excellent presentation from a technology company, Plasco, which has built a demonstration facility in Ottawa that uses plasma arc torches to destroy waste. The company is currently in the testing and ramp-up stage to full operation, and results will be interesting to monitor in the summer of 2007. The value proposition of the technology is that it uses computer systems to control the blended feedstock of raw garbage and plastic to create just the right gaseous fuel to drive special combustion engines. This control of the fuel – waste that needs minimal preparation – may allow Plasco to succeed where other plasma-based systems have failed, for technical and/or economic reasons. In any case, the technology was one of several presented at the conference that illustrate the leading edge of innovation in waste disposal.
Plasco also illustrates another important trend, and that is the recognition of the BTU value – the embodied energy – in waste. This has already been recognized by the engineers of conventional mass-burn incinerators, who regularly refer to their systems as “waste-to-energy” and, in the best and most efficient examples (e.g., Sweden) generate both electricity and steam. The trick, though, has been to use technology to clean the emissions from such systems so that they represent a reduced threat to human health and the environment, and to use technology to garner public acceptance of such facilities by the public in their jurisdictions.
In that regard, the presentation from David Merriman of MacViro Consultants was interesting. Merriman led the audience on a compelling journey through the history of waste disposal in the Greater Toronto Area, where several important projects are under development. It was a convoluted tale, but the gist was that Toronto and the surrounding regions are diverting as much waste as possible through recycling and composting, and at least one area (York Region) plans to build a large waste-to-energy plant. (There was some discussion at the conference that perhaps conventional mass burn may be just as effective as gasification and other higher-tech systems, at a lower cost.)
However, another set of values also informed the discussion, as was evident from certain presentations and especially in questions from the audience. There’s an entirely different sense of “value” that many people see in waste that doesn’t view as beneficial the capture of a relatively small amount of energy via thermal treatment. In fact, there’s a school of thought that even the most successful waste-to-energy schemes are a poor idea, because they encourage the notion that we can continue consuming the earth’s resources and then just make our waste byproducts “go away.”
Proponents of this alternative view regard any material sent for disposal as a poorly-allocated resource. In their opinion, change needs to occur upstream at the manufacturing and natural resource extraction stage. Anything that can’t be recycled or composted or reused, they would argue, shouldn’t be produced in the first place. An efficient and effective municipal waste disposal system, in their view, is really a subsidy to companies that foist their packaging and built-for-obsolescence products on the taxpayer.
This philosophy, sometimes called the “zero waste” movement, looks at the entire lifecycle of products and places emphasis on packaging redesign and such things as renewable energy. A zero waste proponent would never regard a plastic soft drink bottle burned in a waste-to-energy plant as the appropriate consumption of “renewable” energy. Primarily due to climate change concerns, the link between consumption and environmental impacts is increasingly being understood by the public and policymakers, and producer responsibility systems (rather than efficient waste disposal) are the solution advocated by zero waste proponents.
Proper markets are needed for materials diverted from landfill (e.g., metal, plastic and fibre, and also compostable organics). For this reason the last panel discussion was especially interesting. Representatives from five different municipalities across Canada presented on the different technologies and approaches they are implementing to manage waste, and especially to divert it from landfill. One had the sense of Canada as a vast laboratory in which different experiments are being conducted on waste, analogous to different steam engines being developed in England during the industrial revolution. (Edmonton’s co-composting facility and new gasifier are a good example.)
Most importantly, each jurisdiction is struggling with the new economic equation for waste and, to be honest, not yet fully making the connection between the value of what is diverted from disposal and proper markets. Some could not find markets for their source-separated organics (e.g., kitchen scraps). Indeed, not one of them charged a user fee (“bag tag”) for waste placed at the curb, and most often the cost of garbage disposal was hidden in municipal tax bills, among charges for other services.
It was clear that waste reduction and greater recycling and composting will occur when cities and towns charge a visible fee – i.e., a price signal – to waste, that rewards people for doing the “right thing” (diversion) and tolls them for the “wrong thing” (waste).
Realistically one can conclude that the era of zero waste will only come as the second part of a two-step process. We are half-way through the first step – poised to soon divert as much as 60 to 70 per cent of waste from disposal via both high-tech and low-tech recycling and composting, and then dispose of the residuals in thermal treatment plants, anaerobic digesters or stabilized landfills. The days of the old low-tech dump are almost over. When that step is complete (and perhaps a bit sooner), society will be ready to drive change up the production line to the point of the manufacturer or brand owner, and this will prevent many materials from entering the waste stream in the first place. Only then will we be able to say we have moved from consumerism to sustainability.
Guy Crittenden is editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine and HazMat Management magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 705-445-0361.