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What Metro Vancouver's missing in its rush to incinerate


IncineratorReaders will find this op-ed piece from the Vancouver Sun interesting. Written by John Winter — President of the BC Chamber of Commerce — the article describes Metro Vancouver’s proposed Bylaw 280, a piece of flow-control legislation that would direct waste collected within Metro to designated facilities, with residual waste ultimately sent to a planned $500-million incinerator.

To my mind, Metro Vancouver is making a misstep with Bylaw 280, at least in the sense that it’s incinerator proposal is premature and possibly unneeded. I would have no problem with a flow-control law if it was phased in, with the understanding that the region must solve it’s own waste problems and not export “garbage” to places far away (only because export is said to be cheaper). But I wouldn’t introduce flow control to build a waste-to-energy plant; instead I’d introduce the law and give the private sector the opportunity to invest in recycling and organic processing plants to dramatically shrink the volume of waste sent for disposal. And I’d ban all but a few innocuous materials from landfill. I wouldn’t build an incinerator, at least not right away, and possibly never.

In combination with the province’s recent extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation — which makes brand owners and other producers responsible for end-of-life management of their printed paper and packaging materials — a landfill ban and a massive investment in recycling etc. could reduce residual waste volumes dramatically. I’d also introduce best practices used in other jurisdictions, including pay-as-you-throw fees (“bag tags”) and requirements that residual waste be set out in clear bags. I’d hire a well-trained cadre of inspectors to educate people about what they can and cannot put in these bags, and fine chronic violators, and I’d work with the province to bring greater source-separation to the commercial sector (e.g., restaurants). Recyclables and organics would be collected regularly and for free. (I’d even offer rebates for valuable materials.)

Meanwhile, the price for throwing out residual waste — collected less often — would steadily increase, eventually to painful levels. I’d work with manufacturers and importers on eliminating problem materials and redesigning products and packaging for reuse or ease of recycling (which is ultimately the whole point of the EPR exercise).

I’d use the threat of an incinerator or new landfill as a kind of Sword of Damocles over businesses and the population. I’d tell the public that by a certain year a certain very high level of waste reduction needed to be achieved or the region might have no choice but to build an incinerator or a new landfill. The goal would be to reduce residual waste to such a trickle that local landfills could handle it. Over time, any small overflow could be sent outside the region with an exemption, in an emergency. In truth, by that point the residual waste would be economically worthless material, free of organics. It wouldn’t have much or any recyclable material in it.

I’d then study that material to determine if anything useful could be done with it. If not, I’d examine why such materials are entering the economy in the first place.

In the end, there wouldn’t be enough material to justify the need for a waste incinerator. Any new disposal infrastructure would, at that point, be small and modular — a niche application for a tiny fraction of problem waste material.

Of course, none of this would work in a business-as-usual scenario. Society would have to be led to rally behind the waste reduction cause and the private sector encouraged to build recycling and organic plants.

Some will say this is naive and idealistic. Maybe so, but it least such a plan would align with people’s values. It’s very clear that the public doesn’t want incinerators or new landfills; people simply need to be presented with viable alternatives. If it played out imperfectly in the real world, at least the final fraction of waste needing treatment and disposal would be as small as possible.

The problem I have with Metro Vancouver’s approach is that it takes the exact opposite tact. It’s clear that Metro staff really want to build an incinerator and a big one at that, and are happy to introduce draconian rules to fund it and direct waste to it. Their centrally-planned publicly-owned utility scheme will discourage private sector investment and innovation in waste reduction and recycling, and provide a disincentive to businesses and the public to aggressively reduce waste, because in the end there will always be the option to just burn more of the stuff. (And the wording of Metro Vancouver’s long-term waste plan provides exactly that kind of wiggle room, describing its long-term diversion targets as “aspirational goals”).

I wish Metro Vancouver was as enthusiastic about trying aggressive waste reduction and recycling first, and viewed both landfill and incineration as eleventh-hour disposal options to be considered only if all else fails. Sadly, Metro staff’s enthusiasm to build their large incinerator is palpable and they pretty much won’t discuss other options seriously. In fact, Bylaw 280 actively thwarts other options by making them uneconomic.

Here’s the article in the Vancouver Sun:

 

Opinion: Let business drive zero-waste solutions

By John Winter, Special to the Vancouver Sun September 15, 2014 2:37 PM

A clean environment. A competitive economy. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce has long supported the goals of minimizing waste generation and maximizing reuse, recycling and material recovery, which happen to be the first two objectives of Metro Vancouver’s integrated solid waste plan.

With the Metro Vancouver Zero Waste Forum being held Tuesday, it’s important to give all Metro Vancouver residents a more complete understanding of business’s position on zero waste and how our regional government is dealing with this issue.

Instead of working with business in an open market, Metro’s proposed Bylaw 280, better known as the flow-control bylaw, is looking to build an invisible wall around the region’s borders to prevent the movement of waste outside the Greater Vancouver region.

Business cares and the average Metro Vancouver resident should too.

Metro’s Bylaw 280 will allow the regional government to increase the tipping fees — the price you pay to dump your waste at Metro-controlled facilities — from a current $108 per tonne to at least $157 per tonne.

In a free-market system, this price hike would cause companies to take their waste to cheaper jurisdictions. However, by removing the freedom to choose where our waste will go, flow control will give our regional government the ability to set whatever price it wishes with little recourse for business, and ultimately residents, who will pay for it in higher prices for goods and services.

Another reason to care would be construction of an incinerator that no one wants because it isn’t green and it will cost taxpayers more than $500 million. For incineration to be viable, it needs a consistent feed stock (a.k.a. flow control) that is rich in hydrocarbons (a.k.a. recyclables). This runs counter to Metro’s zero waste management plan.

Private enterprise has a solution to help Metro meet its zero waste goals through mixed-material waste recovery facilities (MRFs). However, instead of being welcomed to help, these private businesses are cast aside. Instead of being given clear rules as to how they can solve the problem, goalposts are being moved. These operations are paid lip service in a bylaw that treats them simply as waste-disposal companies, instead of recognizing them as the supplemental recycling facilities they can and will be.

These companies want to invest tens of millions of non-taxpayer dollars and create hundreds of jobs, while helping us all meet our goal of removing recyclables from the waste stream before being dumped into our landfills. Instead of being empowered to create well-paying jobs for the region, some companies are being asked to jump through hoops, beyond the standard practice of the Metro Vancouver regulatory process.

For the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the issue of Bylaw 280, and ultimately incineration, boils down to three simple questions Metro officials cannot seem to answer:

1. Would companies that are looking to design and operate the incinerator on behalf of Metro still be willing to do so if they didn’t have a secure feedstock (i.e. flow control)?

2. If Metro is correct that MRFs won’t work, why not let the private sector sink its money into a “lost cause”?

3. If MRFs don’t work, then why is Covanta, one of the companies bidding to design and build the incinerator for Metro, also entering the mixed-waste recovery business in Indiana?

The answer to these questions will lead to what many feel is the inevitable conclusion: that Bylaw 280 is not the correct solution for Metro Vancouver’s waste-reduction needs.

Solving waste issues in Metro Vancouver, and in all the regions across the province, will require a team effort.

We need a regional government that will build a zero-waste system and regulatory process that looks to fully integrate free-enterprise solutions to green issues. We don’t need monopolistic rules and regulations that pre-ordain higher fees for business and residents alike and an incinerator that will fail to burn our problems away.

Bylaw 280 is a solution looking for a problem. It’s laudable that we want to handle our waste in the region, and we agree we should handle our own mess, but Metro already has the tools to do this. So before we look to add more red tape that punishes private business, let’s look at more enforcement of existing bylaws.

Business is ready and willing to assist local governments in achieving zero-waste goals. The private sector can deliver more jobs, more recycling and lower fees. Let’s get to work.

John Winter is president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.


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