Photo: The new engineered landfill that will serve the entire north Island
THE next time you drag your trash bins to the curb, think about what happens next to that garbage.
If you have conscientiously reduced, recycled and reused, you will have sent just a small amount of waste to the Pigeon Lake dump, now known by the gentrified title, Comox Valley Waste Management Center. And chances are good that your trash bin contained mostly plastic packaging.
When it reaches the dump, workers will bury your trash, and everyone else’s, in a landfill and leave it to decompose over the next 1,000 years. During that time, in older landfills, it will leach toxic liquids into the soil and methane gas into the atmosphere.
Landfills are North America’s third largest source of methane, which is 25 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Not long ago, the Comox Strathcona Waste Management board of directors (CSWM) thought they had so much landfill capacity that it didn’t seem urgent to explore more environmentally-friendly technologies for disposing of municipal garbage.
The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy (ENV) approved the CSWM Solid Waste Management Plan in 2013, and an amended plan in 2016 to permit construction of a new engineered landfill at Pigeon Lake that will contain toxic liquids and capture methane gas.
The new landfill is so big, the size of 11 CFL football fields, that it is projected to hold the entirety of the north Island region’s municipal waste for at least 20 years.
But what happens then, and do new technologies offer a better solution?
Those are the questions newly-elected Area B Director Rod Nichol started asking three years ago. Those questions led him to technologies that convert waste-to-energy (WTE).
Nichol’s efforts gained enough support on the CSWM board to formally explore the latest technologies that transform undiverted municipal solid wastes (MSW) into energy or recyclable materials. His goal was to reduce the volume of garbage buried in the new landfill and extend its usable life.
On Nov. 28, a special WTE committee, which Nichol chairs, will consider the recommendations of a consultant who has reviewed three different proposals to cope with the north Island’s garbage problem — Eco Waste Solutions, Sustane Technologies and WTT Technology.
It’s anticipated the technology review will answer several questions about waste-to-energy:
Do any of the WTE proposals provide sustainable and environment-friendly solutions? Will they reduce the cost of dumping? Will they undermine the progress of waste reduction programs? And will the provincial government even allow WTE when the north Island diversion rate is still well under 60 percent?
Waste to energy solutions
Two of the three proposals the CSWM board will consider appear to involve some form of burning waste to directly or indirectly produce energy or fuel.
While incineration is common in Europe, British Columbia has only one active WTE plant in Burnaby (built in 1988). And none of the applicant companies appear to have working models in Canada or the United States.
On its website, Eco Waste Solutions promotes burning undiverted residual waste in large incinerators to produce electricity. This would require a tall smokestack towering high above the Comox Valley.
Given that Island Health issued an air quality advisory for the City of Courtenay this week, and ongoing widespread concerns about the effect of wood stoves on people with certain medical conditions, it’s unlikely this proposal would garner much support.
Sustane Technologies’ website says their company has developed the technology to separate plastics from organic material, and to produce biomass fuel pellets and diesel fuel (from the plastics). It does not utilize incineration or any direct combustion.
There are other, less common, methods of turning waste to energy, such as gasification (which produces combustible gas) or pyrolysis (which produces combustible tar or bio-oil).
It’s harder to assess the third applicant, WTT Technology, from its website. The Netherlands company says it integrates mechanical and biological (composting and digestion) treatments in solutions tailor-made for each installation. It claims no harmful emissions, and does not mention incineration.
All three applicants claim their technologies can recover 90 percent of what the CSWM Center in Cumberland currently plans to bury in its new landfill. If true, that would mean the landfill could service the north Island 10 times longer than currently projected, perhaps for up to 200 years.
The technical reports submitted by the three companies and the consultant’s review will be made public a day before the CSWM’s Nov. 28 meeting.
WTE versus Zero Waste
Burning undiverted garbage (trash that can’t be recycled or reused) to generate electricity also produces emissions harmful to the atmosphere. And it makes no difference if the garbage is burned directly or converted into fuel that is burned later.
Buddy Boyd, a director of Zero Waste Canada, said the only real sustainable solution is a Zero Waste world, which he believes is possible without affecting our quality of life.
His group’s mission is “to help individuals, businesses, and governments transition to a circular economy, making the use of landfills, incinerators, and waste-to-energy plants obsolete.”
Boyd said the “so-called emerging technologies are unsustainable scams.”
“None of the proposals for the Comox Valley challenge the community to do better in living a zero waste lifestyle,” he said. “In fact, they do the opposite: They require a guaranteed supply of waste to fuel their operations and pay off the company’s capital costs.”
CSWM Director Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, said a zero waste world would be ideal, and to achieve it would require a massive global shift in manufacturing, packaging and education.
“We can’t change society overnight, so what do we do in the interim,” he said? “It’s better than we turn this garbage into fuel than to have it floating around like giant islands in the ocean.”
And, he called landfills a 19th century solution.
“We can’t keep throwing garbage into a hole,” he said. “Waste-to-energy is better, and will save taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Environment ministry policy
Responding to a query from Decafnation, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy sent the following statement via email:
“Current ministry policy supports the 5R pollution prevention hierarchy … whereby waste materials are managed at the highest possible level and waste-to-energy is not undertaken unless all of the higher level options have been considered.
“The hierarchy and current ministry legislation and guidance does not preclude any form of waste-to-energy or incineration but establishes criteria that must be met in order to meet higher levels of the hierarchy instead of disposal.”
Guidance documents for waste-to-energy can be found here.
The province prefers to let regional district determine the best strategies for disposal and managing municipal solid waste.
What’s happened so far
Besides the new landfill at Pigeon Lake, the Solid Waste Management Plan calls for environmentally-mandated closure of all other landfills on the north Island, including the Campbell River landfill; building transfer stations in those communities losing landfills; and, adding a methane burners and an organic composting facility.
The CSWM also asked Nichol’ committee to study waste-to-energy technologies.
CSWM Director Brenda Leigh, from the Oyster River area, says the last time the board looked at WTE in 2010, “we learned that the cost per tonne significantly exceeded the cost of landfilling and that we did not have the volume to make WTE economically viable.”
She noted that the WTE committee has probed other municipalities about contributing their undiverted garbage to a WTE stream.
“But as far as I am aware, this proposal hasn’t advanced beyond talking,” she said.
Nichol says he has spoken to elected officials in other communities, including Victoria. But he doesn’t anticipate volume being an issue as all three companies would scale their operations to the region and its projected population growth.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told Decafnation, “Without knowing precisely what technology is being considered, I think Director Nicol’s approach to look for innovative solutions to use waste as a resource is commendable. In the 21st century we need to make every effort as local governments to create closed-loop systems and limit waste.”
What happens next
If the CSWM board wants to pursue construction of a WTE plant at Pigeon Lake, it would have to amend its Solid Waste Management Plan again and get a new approval from the B.C. government. That would mean either achieving a 70 percent diversion before approval, or convincing the province to bend on this criterion.
Then regional district staff would have to work out details and negotiate with the company selected to provide the service.
Nichol said he was told this process could take 18 months or longer, but he believes it could be completed more quickly.
How Canada and B.C. rank worldwide
Canadians generate more municipal waste than all other 16 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to the Conference Board of Canada.
We’re the worst performer, producing twice as much waste in 2008 as Japan, the best performer.
British Columbia does better at reducing, recycling and reusing than every province, except Nova Scotia. But we still generate 573 kg per capita every year of un-diverted garbage that must be buried in landfills.
And that’s a far greater amount of waste per person than the new provincial guidelines.
According to the environment ministry’s “A Guide to Solid Waste Management Planning,” which supports regional districts in developing goals and targets in their solid waste planning, there are two provincial targets for 2020/21:
1) Lower the municipal solid waste disposal rate to 350 kg per person per year; and,
2) Have 75 percent of BC’s population covered by an organic waste disposal restriction. The guide can be found here.