In the spring, a conference was held in Toronto entitled “Municipal Solid Waste: Advances in Processes and Programs.” The conference included experts from Europe, the U.S., and Canada who looked at a number of new technologies. A key point made at the Conference was that waste-to-energy (WTE) is safe, cost-effective and publicly acceptable in other jurisdictions, most notably the Netherlands. For WTE proponents attending the conference, this was welcome news. However, there are several hurdles that need to be cleared before WTE facilities are widely accepted in Canada.
There are approximately six WTE facilities in Canada and about 1,000 in the United States (none built since 1995). In Europe and Asia, over 250 WTE plants have been built in Europe and Asia since 1995 alone.
Why is WTE taking off in other jurisdictions and not North America? The most obvious reason is that landfilling is cheap in the U.S. and Canada compared to Europe and Asia. In the Netherlands, and in other European countries, there is an outright ban on new landfills.
Currently in Canada and the U.S., WTE can’t compete with low cost mega-landfills, but the economics may be shifting. The main reason for the cost shift is the rising demand for and cost of electricity and the difficulties in securing new land for landfilling waste. In Amsterdam, the WTE option has been found to be the lowest cost option for treatment and disposal of municipal waste mainly because of the value of land and the high price of electricity.
In Amsterdam, as is the case in much of Europe, waste is viewed an alternative fuel for energy production.
Winning public support
If a municipality or company is to win support for a WTE facility, it must be prepared for the misinformation, personal attacks and fear mongering by “environmentalists” and NIMBYS. This was in clear evidence at the spring MSW conference in Toronto.
For example, despite the fact that a modern WTE facility, like the one in Amsterdam, emits the same quantity of dioxins as four diesel trucks, some environmentalists still claimed that they are cancer-causing dioxin machines.
Eveline Jonkhoff, marketing manager for the City of Amsterdam’s WTE facility, informed conference delegates that the ash produced from the city-owned WTE is used in the production of building materials (e.g., limestone bricks and concrete). The activists who spoke afterward either chose to ignore this fact or wouldn’t accept it. They decried that no one would accept the ash from a WTE or the building bricks made from it, though many do.
One excellent suggestion offered at event is to have a community oversight and enforcement committee consisting of academics, semi-retired former regulators and other knowledgeable persons to oversee operations of the facility. The committee could have the power to shut down the facility if they found it was not operating properly. Such persons have higher credibility than consultants and company representatives.
Much can be learned from the City of Amsterdam and the acceptance they gained for the state-of-the-art energy-from-waste facility they built. It takes time and lots of effort to education the public on the real-world options for treatment and disposal of municipal solid waste.
Locating a WTE Facility
How do you find a site for a solid waste management facility? A simple answer that has proven successful in other cities is the central core. Major cities in Europe and Asia have come to accept that no one wants their garbage. Therefore, the “local solution to a local problem” approach is taken. Using this approach, WTE is the method of choice.
There are examples other than Amsterdam where WTE facilities are located within the limits of a major city. The WTE plant in Saitama Tobu, Japan could be mistaken for the Bellagio Hotel; the WTE facility in Spittelau, Vienna, Austria had its exterior designed by an artists and looks like it should belong in Disney World, and the Brescia facility in Italy looks more like a commercial office building than a waste incinerator.
To gain acceptance with the local community, U.S. jurisdictions have offered incentives, with mixed success. For example, municipalities are given royalties per tonne of waste accepted, guarantees on housing values, and funding for community enhancements or services.
If a major Canadian municipality starts with the premise that it should solve its waste challenge within its own borders, WTE will be a preferred technical, economic and environmentally safe option. Effort will then be required to convince dispel the myths and misconceptions on its environmental effects.
Editor’s Note:In the next edition we’ll take a close look at energy-from-waste, including publication of the results of a new comparative emissions study, and observations gleaned from a tour of an integrated waste management system in the United Kingdom.
John Nicholson is a management consultant with Environmental Business Consultants based in Toronto, Ontario. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org