With its search for a landfill cancelled and a new waste export scheme in the works, the region weighs its options with Zero Waste proponents pitted against incineration advocates
In January, Metro Vancouver announced it would abandon its effort to locate a new landfill in the interior of British Columbia. The regional government had sought to replace its Cache Creek landfill– which is 300 km northeast ofVancouver and is slated to close in 2010 — with the so-called Ashcroft Landfill, to be constructed on rural property purchased a few years ago. Then, in 2005, the province put the project on hold and told Metro to investigate all of its disposal options, including Ashcroft landfill and other landfills and technologies.
However, on January 22 Metro Vancouver’s waste management committee was jolted by Commissioner Johnny Carline’s recommendation that the regional district abandon its plan due to local First Nations opposition (even though the two bands and one tribal nation appeared before Metro’s board on January 25 saying they were willing to work with Metro Vancouver).
This unexpected development threw Metro Vancouver into a crisis, especially with the 2010 Winter Olympics fast-approaching. Yet, a crisis can be a useful thing, and different observers hoped the disappearance of the “big hole in the ground” would lead to a better, local solution.
Some were therefore disappointed when they read Metro’s draft solid waste management plan, unveiled at the same meeting, and the accompanying Strategy for Updating the Solid Waste Management Plan — a discussion document written by staff for quickly scheduled public meetings. Although it does speak about increased recycling and composting, the document, they say, jumps to conclusions that waste-to-energy (WTE) is the best solution for what’s left over. Metro staff envision the construction of up to six new WTE facilities in pursuit of what Metro confusingly dubbed the “Zero Waste Challenge” (i. e., incineration counts as diversion). Zero Waste Vancouver, which represents local activists, leaped into action. (See Editorial, page 4.)
In the midst of rushed public consultation, an interim plan was hatched to rail-haul garbage to a landfill in Washington State.
Whatever happens, stakeholders in every aspect of waste management across the country are watching the developments in Metro Vancouver closely, and wondering what sort of precedent the regional government might set.
The status quo
Metro Vancouver (legally known as the “Greater Vancouver Regional District” or GVRD) is the most urban and largest regional district by population in BC. It’s a federation of 21 municipalities ranging in size from the village of Belcarra (pop. 700) to the city of Vancouver (pop. 611,000), with a total population of 2.3 million.
Along the lines of a plan adopted in 1995, local municipalities collect residential garbage, recyclables and yard trimmings from single homes, as well as recyclables from multi-residential buildings (unlike most municipalities the multi-rez sector contracts for garbage privately — see article, page 16.) Recyclables are processed in private MRFs, and yard trimmings are also composted by the private sector (with the exception of the City of Vancouver’s composting operation on its landfill). Most municipalities have a two-can limit and charge solid waste collection as a separate line item on the annual tax bill.
Businesses arrange for private waste collection. Recycling of IC&I waste is encouraged but not mandatory. Demolition, land-clearing and construction (DLC) wastes are likewise recycled or landfilled by the private sector.
Chronology of Events
since Metro Vancouver adopted its 1995 solid waste management plan
1995 Metro adopts Solid Waste Management Plan with 50 per cent diversion goal.
1995-1999 Municipalities introduce curbside recycling, yard waste collection and can limits (mostly two cans) to single-family homes.
1998 50 per cent diversion is achieved two years ahead of schedule.
1998-1999 Metro pursues expansion of Cache Creek landfill but encounters difficulties with respect to First Nations issues.
1999-2000 Municipalities introduce multi-family recycling programs.
2000 Metro purchases Ashcroft Ranch as replacement for Cache Creek landfill.
2001 Metro launches the “Sustainable Region Initiative” to define sustainability principles and integrate management plans for solid waste, liquid waste, biosolids, greenhouse gases, air quality, drinking water, land use, biodiversity, parks, housing.
2002 Metro begins stakeholder consultations for Ashcroft Ranch Landfill Project.
2003 Metro begins Environmental assessment process for Ashcroft Ranch Landfill Project.
Aug. 2004 Metro submits formal application to BC Environmental Assessment Office for an environmental assessment certificate for the Ashcroft Ranch Landfill Project.
Jun. 2005 Province suspends review of the environmental assessment certificate for Ashcroft Ranch Landfill Project and tells Metro to investigate full range of alternative disposal options.
May 2006 Zero Waste Challenge adopted, including consideration of waste-to-energy.
Jul. 2006 Metro launches Cache Creek landfill replacement process and issues requests for expressions of interest for alternative disposal options.
Nov. 2006 Biosolids Management Plan adopted. Number one strategy is to build a WTE facility for biosolids and solid waste. Infrastructure to be determined in next solid waste management plan.
Nov. 2006 Zero Waste Challenge public workshop to seek feedback on two Zero Waste goals:
1. Minimize waste generation
2. Maximize reuse, recycling and energy recovery
May 2007 Zero Waste Challenge public workshop asking for suggestions for specific strategies and actions under the two Zero Waste Challenge goals above.
Jan. 2008 Plans to site a replacement landfill for Cache Creek landfill abandoned. New priorities are WTE, composting & Zero Waste Challenge.
Jan. 2008 Draft solid waste and liquid waste management plans unveiled without a formal technical review of options. Both plans focus on energy recovery (MSW & biosolids).
Feb. 2008 Direction approved for Greenhouse Gas Reduction Strategy that hinges on generating energy from solid waste to offset fuel consumption from government operations.
Mar. 2008 Metro votes to seek province’s approval to ship waste to U. S. landfills as interim disposal measure until new WTE facilities are built.
Apr.-Jun. 2008 Public meetings begin for draft solid waste & liquid waste management plans. Both plans will be consulted on at the same meetings.
Jul. 2008 Board to consider final draft solid waste & liquid waste plans and submit to province Unlike other cities that only deal with residential material, Metro Vancouver provides the disposal infrastructure for both residential and IC&I wastes. Its network includes six transfer stations and three disposal facilities: the Vancouver Landfill (750,000 tonnes per year), the Cache Creek Landfill (390,000 tonnes of Metro waste per year, plus 110,000 from other regional districts), and the Burnaby Waste-to-Energy incinerator (280,000 tonnes per year). (See sidebar articles on pages 13 and 17.) Thus far, the region lacks significant infrastructure for composting of household organics via so-called Green Bin programs, although this will change with the new plan that envisions new composting plants.
This situation exists against a background of product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs that are the most robust in Canada. These include programs for used beverage containers, used oil (plus filters and containers), paint (containers), flammable liquids,
pesticides, medications, scrap tires, and computers and televisions (e-waste). The province is expected to announce two new programs soon, and more are planned.
All of this has led Metro Vancouver to achieve 50 per cent diversion of waste from disposal, a laudable achievement. Yet the overall generation of waste requiring disposal has continued to grow due to population growth and (more recently) a strong economy.
At the urging of politicians eager to move past the 50 per cent goal, Metro’s board of directors adopted the “Zero Waste Challenge” in May 2006. This was followed up with the aforementioned discussion document when efforts to site a new landfill were terminated in January.
Waste to energy
According to Fred Nenninger, manager of the Regional Utility Planning division, the new draft plan is based on two objectives: increase diversion to 70 per cent and recover energy from the remaining 30 per cent.
To increase diversion from 52 per cent to 70 per cent by 2015, Metro will target the top five materials currently being disposed: wood (22 per cent), paper & paperboard (14 per cent), food (13 per cent), plastics (nine per cent), yard & garden (five per cent).
Specifically, the plan proposes the following:
• Composting food and contaminated paper waste: Metro budgeted $40 million to develop new composting infrastructure in 2008. Collection will be phased in starting with the commercial sector, followed by Green Bin single family and eventually multi-residential collection.
• Wood waste diversion: Municipalities would require C&D recycling plans with construction, demolition and retrofit permits. Metro would expand the public and private collection infrastructure.
• Plastics recycling: Municipalities that aren’t already doing so would expand collection to all plastics containers in categories 1 through 7.
• Increased EPR: Programs for small appliances and electronics.
• Mandatory recycling for multi-residential and IC&I sectors.
• Enhanced disposal bans.
• Increased education through social marketing.
For the remaining 30 per cent of the waste stream, Metro Vancouver proposes a three-part disposal strategy based on the Europeanmodel of “pre-treating” waste to stabilize the organic component and get maximum benefit from the embedded energy.
1. Expand local WTE infrastructure: Three to six incinerators (or other thermal technology) will be built at a cost of $1.1 billion in capital, and $1.4 billion to almost $2 billion in operating costs over 20 years. Tipping fees would rise from the current $68 per tonne to $105-$130 per tonne.
2. Bottom ash recycling and market development: Metro established a new Residuals Division last fall to deal specifically with incinerator ash (as well as biosolids and debris screened from the drinking water facilities).
3. Residuals: Eventually landfill all WTE residuals in the Vancouver Landfill. After the Cache Creek landfill closes in 2010 and until WTE facilities are built in 2015, Metro is seeking the province’s approval to export roughly 400,000 tonnes per year of waste to landfills in the U. S. (See sidebar, page 17.)
WTE has a couple of drivers, says Nenninger. One is Metro’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction strategy document which alludes to WTE as a source of “community-scale clean energy.” Metro wants to turn itself into a net energy producer by generating energy through its solid waste, sewer and drinking water utilities, to offset the energy it consumes in its government operations. The WTE plants would produce enough electricity to power 40,000 homes (80 per cent of all the energy Metro plans to produce as a whole, and enough to tip the scale from being a net consumer to a net producer of energy).
This approach is backed by the BC Energy Plan, which classifies municipal solid waste as bio-energy because of its biomass. Nenninger also points to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s best practice that says incineration with co-generation can be climate- neutral due to emission credits resulting from displacing conventional fossil fuel consumption. And finally, BC’s new Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act commits the province to reduce the GHGs from its government operations from current levels by 33 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 — targets Metro adopted for itself and plans to achieve through its WTE offsets.
“Our Board is very interested in ‘walking the talk,'” says Roger Quan, manager of Metro’s Air Quality division responsible for drafting the GHG reduction plan. “Our piece may only be two per cent of regional GHG emissions, but we’re showing leadership by dealing with our piece to ensure that the rest of the sources in the region follow suit.”
For the most part, the media has presented Metro’s WTE plans positively, following editorial board meetings with Metro Vancouver senior staff and promoters of various WTE technologies. (One Vancouver Sun headline read: “Garbage + Plasma = Clean Energy.”)
But many are skeptical. Critics say the proCOVER posed plan provides little incentive to prevent waste, does not abide by the polluter pay (or “highest best use” principles), doesn’t address the climate change problem as much as it suggests, and is weak on encouraging new EPR programs.
And they worry that the planning process lacks transparency, including an objective look at other options.
Guy Dauncey, president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, disputes claims that municipal solid waste is a “clean” or “sustainable” form of energy, citing not just GHG emissions from fossil-based carbon, but also toxic air emissions.
“It’s totally unsustainable,” says Dauncey. “It’s only seen as sustainable if we assume the flow of garbage is like the flow of a river or the flow of the wind, something that nature created. We want to cease its existence, so how can it be a sustainable source of energy?”
Dauncey comes down hard on Metro’s climate change calculations, arguing that Metro needs to think about “embodied energy” — the amount of energy consumed to make the products that become waste and in turn fuel the combustion facilities. Generating energy to offset fuel consumption is not the same as reducing energy, he says.
Downwind, the Fraser Valley Regional District and the City of Abbotsford, Metro’s neighbors to the east, immediately sent letters expressing concern about the added pollution to their airshed. Their air quality is notoriously poor because emissions generated in Metro Vancouver are funneled up the valley and trapped by the mountains.
“We are not convinced that there has been a detailed independent analysis of claims by the proponent… and we question whether this is the airshed to test it,” wrote Abbotsford mayor, George Fergusen.
“This unilateral decision has caused considerable anxiety at the FVRD, as it appears to have been adopted without the benefit of consultation with those that will be affected by operation of the proposed facilities,” wrote Terry Raymond, FVRD vice-chair, saying they learned about the developments through the media.
Apart from any risks posed by incineration, Metro’s twist on Zero Waste is causing deep concern among the concept’s founders.
“I take heartfelt exception to them calling waste-to-energy Zero Waste,” says Jeff Morris, Ph. D. Morris, an environmental economist, has published studies in the International Journal Life of Cycle Assessment and the Journal of Hazardous Materials showing that the lifecycle impacts of recycling are at least an order of magnitude less than WTE incineration. (For detail, see “The New Eco-Currency” by Clarissa Morawsky in the December/January 2008 edition of this magazine, available at www.solidwastemag.com)
Bill Sheehan, executive director and cofounder of the Product Policy In
stitute, reviewed the discussion paper and called it an “embarrassment to the Zero Waste movement.” He points out that the funding priorities don’t match the waste reduction priorities stated in the document.
“It’s the absolute opposite,” he says. Dauncey agrees.
“Where’s the incentive to go to Zero Waste when you’ve got to feed a great machine?” he says. “It sets the whole mindset on a permanent consumption track, which is the antithesis of what we need.”
A new way of thinking
It’s an exciting time for solid waste planning. There’s no doubt that climate change requires us to re-think matters, and Metro gets full marks for taking a stab at translating this complex and evolving paradigm into its proposed plan.
But perhaps the biggest paradigm shift that needs to take place is stepping out of the public utility mode and adopting an altogether different premise.
A report prepared for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) by Anielski Management (2005) shows that Vancouverites’ ecological footprint of 7.7 hectares is already four times bigger than the 1.9 hectares available per person today. And if, as expected, the world’s population reaches nine billion in 2050, the available biocapacity will shrink to 1.2 hectares per person. Vancouverites will have to reduce their resource consumption by 85 per cent in order to be sustainable.
On this basis alone there’s a case to be made for revisiting the assumptions in the proposed plan and for Metro to potentially adopt the same goal as Oakland, California: 90 per cent less garbage to disposal facilities (including WTE) — which translates into reducing Metro Vancouver’s 1.6 million annually-disposed tonnes to just 160,000 tonnes per year.
Achieving this opens up questions like: How do we pick the low-hanging fruit? What disposal system is the best bridge to Zero Waste? Under what circumstances is energy recovery appropriate for source-separated materials? And the one posed by the Product Policy Institute and BC Product Stewardship Council: How do we prepare for full EPR?
With a new (hopefully temporary) waste export option, one also has to ask: what’s the rush (to build incinerators)?
BC — the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a carbon tax — is well-poised for a closed-loop economy. BC’s Minister of Environment, Barry Penner, has said that all products will eventually be covered by EPR programs, at a rate of two new programs every three years. That’s ambitious, but still not fast enough for local governments saddled with the responsibility for dealing with waste.
But there’s hope. BC’s EPR budget is about $2 million for its eight EPR programs.
Imagine the possibilities if someone served them a slice of the billion-dollar waste-to- energy pie.
Monica Kosmak is a freelance writer in Vancouver, British Columbia. Contact Monica at email@example.com