In July I had an interesting experience as a guest on a new 30-minute TV show called “It’s LeDrew” hosted by Toronto lawyer Stephen LeDrew. The program will be aired on ichannel this fall on Rogers digital cable TV.
LeDrew is a tall man whose shaved head and bow tie makes him look like Daddy Warbucks from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Despite the show’s casual format, LeDrew’s lawyerly cross-examination skills help him get the truth out of guests. When a second panelist didn’t arrive I was put on the spot; the whole interview focused on my opinions about what we should do with our waste.
From years editing a magazine on waste management, I’ve become aware how controversial some ideas are. Like a politician I’ve learned to explore the various shades of gray and avoid trouble, at least some of the time. But LeDrew wouldn’t let me off the hook and the result as a sort of confession about what I really think. I thought readers might be interested in what I said, when pressed.
LeDrew asked me how we could solve our waste-related problems, suggesting the obstacles are more political than technical. I agreed, adding that we have to pay attention to what questions we’re asking, as these often generate unintended consequences.
If we simply ask, “How can we divert more garbage from landfill?” this could lead to perverse outcomes. Some waste diversion initiatives make sense, such as recycling beverage containers, old newspapers and so on. Experts say that between 60 and 65 per cent of the waste stream can sensibly be diverted. But once the “low-hanging fruit” is picked, will it make sense to source-separate everything in that remaining 35 to 40 per cent, at a cost of hundreds and even thousands of dollars per tonne for certain materials? Unlikely, I told LeDrew.
A better question might be, “What is the most environmentally and economically sound treatment or disposal option for each material, from a lifecycle assessment perspective?” Asking that question will generate better strategies than the blunt instrument of landfill diversion, including industry-funded product stewardship programs for some materials, thermal treatment for others, and landfill for some residues that are non-polluting and for which no markets exist.
People may argue over how to boost collection efficiency, but it’s what to do with the 35 to 45 per cent residue that has people talking these days.
“Should it be incinerated,” LeDrew asked?
I qualified my answer by saying there’s no “single answer” to that question and that solutions will vary from place to place. But I said that, in general, if I were a Canadian municipal waste manager I’d be disinclined to try and build a large purpose-built incinerator at this time. For me, this has nothing to do with ideology, but rather the sheer cost of these compared to landfill. I think we should capture methane from old landfills to generate energy. We should continue to use existing waste-to-energy plants in places like Brampton, Ontario and Burnaby, B.C., but also integrate cement kilns into the waste-to-energy grid, since the capital-intensive large equipment is already in place, and refuse-derived fuel displaces coal and oil that’s being burned anyway. But I was quick to add that the kilns can only handle certain wastes, and are not a panacea.
Another suggestion that appeared to resonate with LeDrew concerned the interesting demonstration projects currently underway across Canada. I recommended that waste managers buy themselves time to watch these succeed or fail before investing in any major infrastructure. For instance, Plasco’s plasma torch waste treatment plant has just come online in Ottawa. (See article, page 19.) EnQuest Power has built a steam reformation plant in Sault Ste Marie that looks promising. There’s a significant gasification plant being built in Winnipeg, plus anaerobic digestion and other technologies that need time to mature.
In the meantime, I suggested there are some easier things we can do while the novel approaches are demonstrated. At the top of my list would be a combination of mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) and stabilized landfill. (See article, page 30.) MBT plants capture recyclables and organics from the waste stream that are missed in source-separation programs. They make a landfill virtually non-polluting. And they’re the missing key (I think) to diversion in the multi-residential sector. Recycling isn’t as convenient for apartment and hi-rise inhabitants as it is for single-family homeowners, who often have porches, alleyways and garages to store their bins, totes and bags. Any number of MBT technologies could take the multi-rez waste and convert it to a refuse-derived fuel for use in a waste-to-energy plant or cement kiln and/or a much-reduced volume of stable and inert material suitable for landfill disposal.
The other big thing we can “do right now” is create markets for recycled materials and compost. By demanding more recycled content in things like beverage containers and other packaging we’ll stimulate a market pull that could accomplish more waste diversion than any amount of regulatory push.
I may argue for and against many things in these magazine pages, but these were the ideas I coughed up when put on the spot.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org