Two summers ago, at our family cabin on Green Lake – a five hour drive north of Vancouver – I saw, for the first time, the effects of the mountain pine beetle. Warm winters and fire-suppressed summers had fanned the beetle population to an epidemic. Now, paddling in our canoe, I could see that all the beetle-killed pines along the shoreline, and all those rolling over the hills and valleys beyond, had turned a rusty red. I was, according to most experts, witnessing climate change.
Like maples in October, the pines looked like they had simply turned red for fall. But the trees were dead, and this meant big changes for the forestry industry. The red forest also foreshadowed something else: a change of season for solid waste.
British Columbia’s vision for solid waste is best described in its Bioenergy Strategy. The plan connects logging trucks to garbage trucks by rebranding the dying forest and municipal solid waste as clean, green, carbon-neutral sources of energy.
“The BC Bioenergy Strategy lays the framework for us to convert more waste into clean energy,” Premier Gordon Campbell said in a press release in January 2008. And that has some worried that BC is heading away from Zero Waste.
The strategy officially classifies municipal solid waste as a bioenergy resource, both as a biofuel (landfill gas) and as a source of biomass, which can be combusted or otherwise converted to produce heat and electricity. The biomass fraction of municipal waste is considered carbon neutral on the assumption that it releases no more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbed through photosynthesis during its lifetime. Concerns related to carbon dioxide and other air emissions from the fossil carbon component (mostly from plastics) are wiped away in a related document, the province’s Clean and Renewable Energy Guidelines, which classifies municipal solid waste as “clean” strictly on the basis of landfill avoidance.
“Turning municipal waste into green energy offers endless potential,” says the strategy, which goes as far as calling such waste one of BC’s “abundant natural resources.” In this light, landfills, incinerators, gasifiers and any other conversion technology approved by the energy minister are no longer problems to be eliminated. They are now called “bioenergy facilities.”
To expand this “bioenergy network,” the strategy establishes a $25 million fund to commercialize emerging technologies. It also directs BC Hydro to purchase power from bioenergy plants.
The Bioenergy Strategy could bring about some positive changes. A new regulation comes into effect this January that sets the criteria for capturing landfill gas. One could argue the benefits of building disposal facilities that won’t solely rely on municipal waste as part of the fuel blend. And if funds are allocated to developing anaerobic digesters, it will expand BC’s much-needed composting capacity.
But within the strategy, there are no preventative measures. No talk of organics disposal bans to put diversion ahead of conversion. No recycled content regulations to drive up paper recycling rates. No matching subsidies to expand BC’s recycling infrastructure. No mention of the irony that, as you reduce the organic fraction – which drops significantly with organics diversion, paper recycling and wood waste collection programs – the carbon credit falls with it.
Surprisingly, for a document that’s supposed posed to help BC meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020, there’s no discussion of the fact that source reduction and recycling save more energy and CO than landfilling and incineration, as shown in a study done by Environment Canada. Nor does the strategy mention the emerging debate that perhaps biogenic carbon should be included in emissions calculations in order to factor in the element of time. (Emissions are released in an instant, whereas trees grow for decades.)
All of which worries long-time Zero Waste advocates like Ann Johnston of the Mayne Island Recycling Society, who fears BC will start counting waste-to-energy as diversion.
“We are facing co-option of the term Zero Waste by those who promote incineration, gasification and plasma technology and claim they can produce ‘green energy’ from ‘renewable resources,'” she says.
Her concern is well-founded. In a move that shot some eyebrows higher than smokestacks, the province recently changed the language in the Environmental Management Act, inverting the pollution prevention hierarchy by putting recovery on the same level as reuse.
As Ontario contemplates a Zero Waste future based on extended producer responsibility and municipal organics programs, British Columbia, with its focus on end-of-pipe energy, is still missing the forest for the trees.
Monica Kosmak is an environmental journalist based in Port Moody, BC. Contact Monica firstname.lastname@example.org