Feature Story                                                                                          Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Whose Trash Is It, Anyway?

A breath of fresh air for the incinerator debate

Submitted by Jennifer Woodruff, Chilliwack/Voice file photos


Malcolm Brodie, chair of Metro's Zero Waste Committee, speaks to the FVRD board in late June. Below, Jennifer Woodruff file photo.


or quite some time now, residents of Chilliwack have been hearing that Metro Vancouver's proposed Waste-to-Energy incinerator is a menace to the air quality of the Fraser Valley. 


Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz has made the issue a personal crusade, in defence of the Valley's air shed. She's not alone. Chilliwack MLA John Martin, while running in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection for the BC Conservative Party, was steadfastly on the “con” side of the argument. 


“Nothing is more precious than the quality of our air”, he stated only days into the race, referring to the controversial facility as “the proposed Liberal garbage incinerator”. (Martin now sits on the Liberal benches, as BC Liberal MLA for Chilliwack).


Recently it was revealed that Martin's predecessor, John Les, is now working as a lobbyist for Belkorp, a waste management company heavily invested in the continuation of landfills as the solution to BC's waste conundrum.


Les has been vocally opposed to the incinerator for quite some time, even appearing with officials of Belkorp to announce its plan to use gas from the gasification of waste in the Cache Creek landfill (serviced by Belkorp) to fuel its fleet of trucks. His new role as a lobbyist for Belkorp then, makes sense. It was Belkorp's initiative that received permission to expand the Cache Creek facility by 48 hectares. Landfalls are a disposal alternative we've relied on for quite some time.


Les is joined in this endeavour by Dimitri Panzatopoulus, a federal Conservative Party operative ensconced in the Premier's Office until recently and a central figure in an internal polling system used for the May election by the governing party. Panzatopoulus, though, lobbies on behalf of BFI, one of the largest waste management companies in the world and also one of its largest polluters.


When government operatives and elected representatives slide rapidly from taxpayer-funded work to lobbying on behalf of private industry, each and every one of us should ask ourselves what is really going on? 


The answer to the question lies in the relationships between these officials and elected representatives and the industry which stands to gain so much from the incinerator not being built. There is a great deal at stake (money wise) and the landfill status quo means important revenue for the waste companies that Les and Panzatopoulus have been retained to lobby on behalf of. 


Add to the loss of trade for hauling garbage and burying it, the fact that tipping fees are going to rise.


BC Chamber of Commerce CEO, Patrick Winter claims that the fees (currently set at $107 per tonne) might “be tripled”. This may or may not be the case, but it's also not really the point. 


The point is it's an additional operating expense industry doesn't want to add to the balance sheet.  Winter adds “Right now, (waste haulers) that contract municipalities take it to wherever they can find a market”. The more garbage there is to ferry about, the more money for private industry. The problem is we're not making it fast enough for their liking. We are reducing waste and that is bad for business.



FVRD Directors assimilate the Zero Waste presentation last June.


Malcolm Brodie of the Zero Waste Committee of Metro Vancouver, states that Winter is correct that fees will rise, but not due to the advent of the incinerator. Rather, these fees will rise because of the success of recycling and sorting initiatives. There is simply less garbage for private industry to compete over. 


These are people who make their living hauling waste to landfills. Of course they prefer that the status quo be maintained. They work for a living.  For it to change would mean a demand on industry to adapt. Adaptation costs money. Adaptation creates the obsolescence of systems that no longer serve the problem in question (garbage). Adaptation demands that industry fully participate in meeting the challenges our society faces as our options diminish in rapidly changing circumstances. 


The problem for the anti-incinerator lobby, then, is not so much the environment as the market. I challenge the public perception that this lobby is primarily concerned with this factor. The lobby would be better served all around, if it were to pursue harm reduction measures, instead of maintaining a methodology in place for decades. To be fair, some measures have been taken (like Belkorp converting its fleet to LNG, as noted further down the page), but in comparison to the challenges looming ever larger in the question of waste disposal, these are insufficient. 


We can continue (literally) to bury our garbage, but there it will stay and more will be produced, demanding more and more land area for the purpose.  Witness the expansion of the Cache Creek site.  Opened in 1989, it was 48 hectares in size. A further seven hectares were added in 2009 and now, 42 more hectares will be added (initiated, as stated earlier, by Belkorp, for whom John Les is now lobbying), for a total of 97 hectares (almost 1 million square metres, or 1 square kilometre, or 239 acres, or a shade under 1/4 the size of Stanley Park).  The LNG initiative proposed by Belkorp posits that 75% of “landfill gas at the Cache Creek facility to produce LNG that will fuel the transportation of waste from the Lower Mainland.


Wastech will convert its fleet of 28 trucks from diesel to clean burning, lower emission LNG, and realize immediate and significant benefits to the air quality for the Fraser Valley and communities along the highway to the Interior.” (Wastech, Cache Creek landfill page).  It is now 2013.  Has the goal been achieved?  There is no word on this since the news release which announced the fleet's conversion in spring of last year, which states that this measure will reduce Belkorp's GHG emissions by 25%. 


The larger the landfill, the more plentiful the gas, I would imagine. Certainly a landfill almost one kilometre square should provide rather a lot of it, but only for the fleet of trucks employed to ferry garbage from one side of British Columbia to the other. This is a step forward, make no mistake, but it does not mitigate to the extent that we are perhaps being led to believe it does. The Why Files reports that “Although many landfills have labyrinthine pipes to collect methane, 60 to 85 percent of the gas escapes into the air, and a recent study (Ozge Kaplan) found that counting this escape, landfills produce 1.6 to 5.7 times more greenhouse-warming as waste-to-energy to make the same amount of electricity.” In the example of Cache Creek, there is no plan for the generation of electricity, or any form of energy. The project is solely for the purpose of fuelling Belkorp's fleet of trucks.


This leads me to the question about North America's tardiness to the incinerator party. Why is it we are just now exploring the possibility, when our European counterparts have already moved to a system of waste reduction and disposal which is yearly building a sustainable and effective model. According to a news release from Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union), dated March 04, 2013, 31% of Denmark's garbage is recycled, while 54% is incinerated. 


These combined methods, then, account for a whopping 85% of Denmark's total waste. Denmark continues to use landfills, but for only 3% of its waste. The final 12% is composted. Denmark leads the European Union for waste incinerated, while Germany leads for recycling, at a rate of 45%. Landfills lead the way in nations like Romania, where 99% of waste ends up in the ground (and 1% is recycled) and Bulgaria, at 94% (with a 3% recycling rate. Very strangely Malta, a tiny nation of limited available land for such purposes, buries 92% of its waste, recycles 7% and incinerates only 1%.


Here's something I'll bet you don't know, though. Vancouver is recycling its garbage at a rate 10% higher than that of Germany.  The City of  Vancouver, according to its Sustainable Waste Management page, recycles its waste at a rate of 55%. This indicates to me that the City is pushing us towards a better understanding of its stated mission to become “the world's greenest city” and why that mission exists:  because it's not only crucial to the quality of human life, but because it is possible. They're proving it.


This leads me to another question: Why would a City so dedicated to sustainable waste disposal advance an agenda of putting an environmentally harmful option in place? Frankly, the assertion doesn't fit the profile. Vancouver is being led as a City of transformation and that includes authentic environmentalism. The fact that this brand of proactive environmentalism encompasses incineration should give us pause.


A critical look at incinerators is necessary for those of us genuinely concerned about the integrity of the environment. Many of us have taken a position against the WTE incinerator out of genuine concern for the damage it might do to the environment, but have we really spent the time to inform ourselves of its efficacy against the current model of landfills? 


Incineration began to be discussed widely as an alternative to landfills in the 1980s. At the time, most concerns about this method of waste disposal centred on environmental impacts. Since that time (three decades), incineration technology has changed and become much more responsive to these concerns. Today's incinerators, as shown in this process diagram, have evolved over three decades to become a sustainable alternative that Europe has already seen the value of:

As always, any materials which originate with industries which stand to gain from their acceptance as gospel require a second, critical look.  What is Denmark's experience, where incineration has been on the energy agenda for 100 years (Kleis/Delager report), making a resurgence in the 1960s? 


“Thanks to the massive political support to district heating the Danish incineration plants are able to sell the entire amount of heat they produce almost all year round. The overall system is therefore characterized by a very high degree of energy efficiency. The plants have become high-technology energy works equipped with the best available technique.”


As stated earlier, Denmark is Europe's top incinerating nation. 


Best Available Technique is the legislative term for the employment of the most advantageous technology available in order to hold such facilities, covered by EU legislation, to a standard of both environmental and economic feasibility. This has been employed in Denmark over the past decade to such effect that even water produced by the process of burning waste (water vapour from flue gas) is recycled, rendering some facilities water self-sufficient. The Columbia Report states “As the major part of the waste is CO2 neutral biomass, the plants have made a significant contribution to a reduction of Denmark’s emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”


So, what's holding us back? 


Part of the problem may be, as cited in the Kleis/Delager report, market pressures concerning share of waste for industry and the sale of power on the “free market”, versus public need for energy. In the current economic climate, it's too often the case that a “market” and its exploitation takes precedence over social mission (in this case the mission to reduce waste in a manner that is beneficial, in that it reduces emissions and fossil fuel dependency by producing energy at source, while further mitigating emissions in its production).


It is hoped that all involved will do their utmost to balance the needs of the moment against a tenuous future. We're at a turning point that demands a great deal of collaboration to emerge from it facing in the most advantageous direction possible.


Ultimately, I suppose the thought of burning our garbage conjures up images of wafting clouds of toxic smoke breezing up the Valley from Burnaby (or wherever it is the beleaguered incinerator will eventually be built). Clearly, though, our garbage disposal needs require continual re-examination to come to the right blend of methods to reduce waste as much as we possibly can. We have wonderful tools in our hands, which are becoming better and more effective every day. 


Now what we need is to move to the centre of the question:  Which solution is the best solution? Which serves our future? How can balance be found so that all of us might benefit?




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