Sometimes you have to go to another country to get a fresh perspective on things, including (and perhaps especially) waste management.
A trip I took to the United Kingdom in July revealed the extent to which some of our waste management “crises” in Canada are manufactured, especially in Ontario where I live, where attempts to expand a landfill require intervention, it seems, from God, and any plan to construct a thermal treatment plant needs approval from an even higher authority.
I came home convinced that, for a consumer society, integrated waste management systems — that may include waste-to-energy plants — are the way to go. And I still can’t figure out what’s wrong with us: Why can’t we imitate the winning examples of infrastructure that are so successful elsewhere?
My trip involved a two-day press tour of an integrated waste management system in Hampshire County operated by Onyx Environmental Group plc, a subsidiary of the French multinational Veolia Environnement. (In North America the company operates as Onyx Waste Systems Inc.)
We viewed collection crews wheeling green totes full of recyclables to sleek modern trucks equipped with automatic lifts. We observed compost being made at the wonderfully named Little Bushywarren, where the operator of the windrow turner rides perched atop the machine’s inverted-U legs in a suspended glass cabin. We trudged through two state-of-the-art recycling facilities and three new high-tech (and architecturally spectacular) waste-to-energy facilities. (See my article on page 15 for details.)
I was most interested in the waste-to-energy plants (which they call “energy recovery”) and asked my hosts if the siting of these facilities was controversial. They told me a long (and sadly familiar) story of the initial public opposition, including GreenPeace activists chaining themselves to equipment for the news cameras.
But there’s no controversy now, and no activists were to be seen anywhere; only the muffled din of equipment inside the buildings. In the end, Hampshire and Onyx agreed to build three small plants instead of one large one. Clare Saunders — an official who had been intimately involved in the public consultation — stated frankly that “the politicians having had some guts” was the determining factor in getting the energy recovery plants built.
On one tour, I asked the grapple operator to bring up a load of material just before he fed it into the burner so I could closely inspect it from the raised viewing platform. This, I told myself, is the stuff that activists say can all be further recycled so we don’t need landfills or incinerators.
Bollocks! (As the Brits would say.) I’ve never seen a more worthless clump of material in my life, except that it can be burned to extract its energy. You can have academic arguments ad nauseum about incineration, but there’s nothing like viewing these operations up close — kicking the tires, so to speak — to drive home the point that these systems are just another industrial process and, as our cover story in this edition suggests, present risks that are minuscule to reasonable people.
It’s true that numerous delegations in the past have flown to Sweden, Japan and other countries to view similar systems, and have come to the same conclusions. The beauty of Hampshire County’s integrated system is that it’s functioning in rural and urban country around Portsmouth and Southampton, in a political and social setting that’s very similar to large parts of Canada. You can easily visualize the whole thing built here, without having to factor in any cultural differences as may exist in, say, Holland or Germany.
Two other observations stand out. First, metal from the bottom ash of the thermal plants is removed with magnets, and the remaining material is incorporated into road aggregate. This means that fly ash, just one or two per cent of the volume that arrives at the plant gate, is the only thing requiring landfill. (Think of how reduction like that could extend the life of Canadian landfills!) Second, the 25-year Hampshire contract attracted major investment from a multi-national environmental services company that employs 251,000 people and achieved revenues in 2004 of 24.6 billion. Not a bad partner if you want to do things once and do them right; and a contract worth studying.
Energy recovery is more expensive than landfilling (possibly double the cost), so planners of integrated waste management systems may or may not choose to go that route, depending on local tip fees and landfill lifespans. But if you’re inclined to dismiss waste to energy for ideological reasons, or because public opposition scares you, I suggest you visit Hampshire County.
You’ll be shaking your head when you come home, I promise.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Email Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org