About eight per cent of municipal waste in Canada is incinerated, one of the lowest proportions among developed countries. In comparison, percentages for other developed countries include: 59 per cent in Switzerland, 54 per cent in Belgium, 48 per cent in Denmark, 47 per cent in Sweden, 42 per cent in France, and 16 per cent in the United States. Canada leads in the amount of waste per capita sent to landfill, is third in the overall amount of waste produced per capita (after the U.S. and Iceland), and has below-average rates of diversion to recycling or composting.
What may aid the popularity of incineration most is a growing distaste for landfill stimulated in part by a greater awareness of negative environmental impacts. Concerns continue to be predominantly about impacts on underground and surface water. For example, the owners of the newly approved Adams Mine landfill near Kirkland Lake, Ontario, are required to provide for continued protection in this respect until 1,000 years after closure.
News about recent developments in Europe is another major influence that could lead to the growth of incineration. The European Union (EU) requires that landfill operations be strictly curtailed. Except for inert materials, waste sent to landfill sites has to be pre-treated. Often, the only practicable method of pre-treatment is incineration. As incinerator ash and other inert materials find use as construction aggregate and for other purposes, there may eventually be little need for landfills at all.
In Europe, the concern about landfills is mainly focussed on emissions, notably methane from decaying organic material and various volatile organic compounds from plastics. A hierarchy of waste management options is becoming entrenched: first, engage in as much waste prevention and minimization as possible; second, do as much re-use, recycling, and recovery of energy as is feasible; third, send the remainder to landfill.
In the U.K. specifically, one of the few countries to have even higher reliance on landfill than Canada, the government has announced that there will have to be substantial increases in both recycling and energy-from-waste to meet the EU directive. Priority is given to recycling and composting. However, this may change. New evidence from the use of full lifecycle analysis suggests that incineration may be better for the environment than recycling, at least for waste paper. This surprising result arises in part because of the large amount of transportation usually involved in recycling paper.
As full lifecycle analysis becomes widely used, transportation impacts are likely to influence waste management choices based on environmental considerations. One of the most sophisticated methods for assessment of both environmental impacts and costs using a full lifecycle approach has been developed in Canada. So far, it has been applied only to London, Ontario, and then only in a preliminary manner. The model was developed for CSR: Corporations Supporting Recycling and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA).
The model’s assessment of scenarios for London’s waste management appears to support the view that incineration, recycling, and composting are not only compatible with each other, but that they support each other. (Countries where much of the municipal waste is incinerated are usually countries in which there are above-average levels of recycling and composting.)
The test case for the future of incineration in Canada could well be the forthcoming Request for Proposals (RFP) for waste disposal to be issued by the City of Toronto, preferably in conjunction with other jurisdictions in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). What was then the Metropolitan Toronto government (since amalgamated) spent much of 1997 developing rules for the
evaluation of responses to such an RFP, within the framework of Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act (EAA). After a hiatus caused by amalgamation, the new City of Toronto has started to readdress this issue. On October 2, Toronto City council voted to set aside the EAA process and issue the already developed guidelines.
Unlike Quebec, for example, munic
ipalities in Ontario are not obliged to work within the EAA when they are contracting out waste management work, although they can be directed to do so by the provincial environment minister. (The Metro government was working within the EAA, even though the municipality had not been designated, in order to avoid being sent back to square one in the event of designation.)
Continuing to work within the EAA could add up to two years to the process. There is some urgency because the existing landfill site–the Keele Valley site in the City of Vaughan, north of Toronto–is due to close in late 2001.
The evaluation process developed by the Metro government was based on extensive input from all parts of the waste management industry. It reflects full lifecycle principles and is about as close to providing a level playing field for solutions based for both incineration and landfill as could be achieved.
The only serious disadvantage of the emerging RFP process for the waste-to-energy industry lies in the proposed time frames, which speak to a solution ready for 2002. An incinerator requires about five years for approval, construction, and commissioning–landfills require less time.
If there are incineration-based solutions among the responses to the RFP, they will likely rank first on environmental criteria (except if they involve sites located far from Toronto). Unless a large facility can be constructed (e.g., a 3,000-plus tonne per day), landfill-based solutions will likely offer lower prices and more timely implementation.
If energy-from-waste is part of Toronto’s solution, the future of incineration in Canada may be assured. If it is not part of the chosen solution, then some popular prejudices against incinerators could be reinforced and Canadians will forgo the benefit of the proven environmental advantages of this method of waste management.
Richard Gilbert is an independent consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. He specializes in transportation, waste management, energy systems, and urban governance.