Re: “Garbage In, Garbage Out: The pros and cons of waste to energy — a disposal strategy that’s making a comeback,” by Clarissa Morawski (April/May 2007 edition)
As Canadian municipalities struggle to achieve sustainable waste management policies, it’s incumbent that the debate focus on objective, proven facts. It’s widely agreed that waste diversion, recycling, and composting waste should come first, but once we get into deliberations about disposal options, the application of scientifically valid information is lost in hysterics, fear-mongering, and convenient misstatements.
In that regard, Ms. Morawski’s recent article on energy-from-waste (EFW) includes a series of misleading arguments and inaccurate statements.
The Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition was recently formed to address the perpetuation of these misconceptions, and we look forward to an on-going, fact-based dialogue.
The facts are these:
Increased recycling does not significantly affect the calorific value of waste. Experience in the U.S. and Europe shows that the removal of low calorific value recyclables (such as yard waste, food waste, metal and glass) and high calorific value material (such as paper and plastics) offset each other, causing the higher heating value of the residual waste to remain about the same. There is sufficient contaminated paper and other combustible material left in the waste after recycling to provide sufficient energy for recovery. Recent audit data from GTA municipalities achieving +60 per cent diversion through aggressive blue box and green bin programs indicates that the energy value of the residual waste has increased by 5 to 10 percent compared to the residual waste from municipalities with less aggressive diversion programs.
Although highly unlikely, a reduction in the calorific value of the waste after recycling would not result in the need to add “additional boilers” to an EFW facility to produce the same amount of energy. In fact, the opposite is true as operators would simply process more waste per hour through the boiler to produce the same amount of energy.
Ms. Morawski is widely off the mark when she states that a typical EFW facility produces enough energy for 2,000 homes. In fact, a typical mass-burn 1500 TPD EFW facility produces enough clean, renewable electricity for 45,000 homes, also saving more than 450,000 barrels of oil each year.
EFW facilities emit two-thirds less CO2 than coal fired power plants, and less than one-half the CO2 that oil and natural gas power plants emit. The newly-formed Global Roundtable on Climate Change (http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/grocc/) (GROCC) unveiled a joint statement on February 20, 2007 identifying EFW as a means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the electric generating sector. Ms. Morawski’s mistake, one propagated by many opponents of EFW, is that she failed to recognize that even with aggressive +60 per cent diversion programs in place, approximately 60 per cent of the energy produced by an EFW is in fact renewable and according to IPCC protocol does not contribute to greenhouse gases.
The 89 operating U.S. EFW plants collectively emit less than 12 grams of dioxin per year. The amount of dioxin emitted by a single modern mass-burn EFW plant is barely detectable by the most sophisticated scientific detection equipment, and is well below health-based air emissions standards. In fact, the US EPA considers EFW plants to be an insignificant source of dioxin. Much larger quantities of dioxin are produced every day by both manmade sources such as diesel trucks and wood burning stoves, and natural sources, such as forest fires and volcanoes.
The emissions of other substances such as mercury from EFW plants are also well below health-based standards. Furthermore, the amount of substances such as mercury in the waste stream are significantly declining, as the use of mercury in U.S. manufacturing processes dropped by almost 90 percent between 1980 and 2000.
Ms. Morawski also questions whether EFW plants are cost competitive. The documented experience in the U.S. shows that the cost of using an EFW facility for solid waste disposal is often comparable to traditional landfills. Moreover, she advocates for stabilized landfills as a preferred alternative to EFW, but her own data indicates that stabilized landfills are more expensive than EFW. She cites Germany as a country where stabilized landfills are used, but she fails to mention that there are 58 operating EFW facilities in Germany, and over 400 EFW facilities in Europe alone, with new ones being built all the time.
It is unfair to compare the cost of landfill today with the cost of the first tonne of waste going into an EFW facility. The more important issue is the life-cycle cost of an EFW facility and where you are going to be in 20 or 30 years. The Greater Vancouver Regional District plant is entirely self-funded, and as a result of the EFW facility revenue return to the GVRD, tipping fees have actually dropped since 1988.
Contrary to critics who state that EFW presupposes or perpetuates bad consumer behaviour, both the U.S. and European experience demonstrates that EFW can exist quite productively within an integrated system in which recycling and diversion are top priorities.
The bigger problem is a willingness — rather, a determination — to maintain the status quo. While regulations, policies, and public education programs have been adopted that prioritize recycling and diversion, this is just a start. Faced with difficult choices, we must embrace innovation by recognizing, as the rest of the world does, that EFW works. To demonize the technology limits our choices.
[For clarification, in the Ontario context, the two proposed facilities (Niagara/Hamilton and York/Durham) are not mega WTE facilities like those found in Europe. Rather, they are for 200,000 and 250,000 TPY, or about 550 and 680 TPD. — ed.]
The author responds…
In the context of understanding the pollution profile associated with waste-to-energy, ignoring the carbon dioxide released from burning biogenic sources (scrap paper, wood waste, organics, etc.) is disingenuous and misleading. In doing so, one is applying a carbon credit against the real emissions from an EFW facility for those waste materials that came from trees, plants, etc. when they were growing and sequestering carbon many years ago. IPCC clearly states, “CO2 emissions from combustion of biomass fuels are not included in totals for the energy sector. They may not be net emissions if the biomass is sustainably produced.” This begs the question: Is each tonne of biomass that you’ve chosen to exclude being sustainable re-harvested?
RE: “Gasification: Waste management lessons from Los Angeles” by John Nicholson, (April/May 2007 edition)
I am writing to respond to an article in your April/May 2007 issue by John Nicholson. The article attempts to criticize a case study that GAIA (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice published about a Thermoselect municipal solid waste gasification incinerator in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Although the article quotes the company claiming that the case study is “partly not true,” the author fails to identify any information in the case study which is incorrect. Mr. Nicholson insinuates that the incinerator did not close in 2004 and that the facility did not lose $500 million during its operation. Yet both of these facts are backed up by numerous newspaper coverage in Germany about the incinerator’s problems a
The article’s allegation that information in the case study is five to eight years old is misleading. The incinerator closed three years ago, which means that all of the information about its operations is, naturally, at least from that period. Some of the information was from the last years of the incinerator’s operations, and other information did occur early in the incinerator’s short operation and continues to be relevant. For example: the conviction of Thermoselect’s founder and two board members for Thermoselect’s first facility in Italy polluting a nearby lake; the incinerator’s problems with emissions exceeding its permits and setting off alarms; and that the incinerator was only able to process one-fifth of the waste it was contracted to process. These issues are critical for any sort of understanding about the potential problems with gasification incineration, and especially about the way this company operates.
Re: IC&I Waste Diversion in Ontario by Maria Kelleher (April/May 2007 edition)
Marie Kelleher’s recent article on IC&I waste diversion measures hits the nail on the head. Statistics Canada should be congratulated for their efforts to track waste disposal and diversion. However, these numbers should be understood in context as Ms. Kelleher points out.
It’s our understanding that Statistics Canada obtains its figures by surveying the waste management sector. As such, materials that were once landfilled and that are now being managed as a value-added product in the manufacturing sector are not included in the Statistics Canada waste diversion numbers. They are, by default, captured in the waste disposal numbers. There are significant tonnages of IC&I materials that were once disposed in Nova Scotia that are not measured as diversion in the Statistics Canada diversion measure.
Interestingly, CCME’s original 50 per cent diversion target by 2000 was based on waste tonnage that were once landfilled. This calculation excluded waste that was always diverted such as scrap metal. The author also highlighted this issue in her article.
As a result of the many difficulties with diversion measurements, Nova Scotia has decided to set a disposal target of 300 kg/person/yr by the year 2015. The target, set in legislation, includes residential, business and C&D waste disposed in municipal solid waste and C&D landfills (not industrial landfills). Disposal targets are also not without problems, however; we have determined, after much discussion with municipalities, that disposal figures are very accurate measures of overall performance. Our Department (Environment and Labour) regulates all disposal sites and requires site owners and operators to report all disposal figures. We have been closely tracking these figures for over 10 years and have gained significant understanding of their accuracy and potential to provide us with a basis for measuring future success.