PHOTO: Peter Vinall, president and co-founder of Sustane Technologies, says the company can convert solid waste that arrives at a landfill into biofuel, through a process that generates zero emissions. Photo courtesy of The Chronicle Herald
Comox Strathcona regional districts take a step closer to new advanced recycling technologies, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and longer landfill life
Using valuable land to bury our garbage is 17th Century thinking,” according to Charlie Cornfield, a Campbell River member of the Comox Strathcona Waste Management Board’s (CSWM) special committee investigating new technologies.
Cornfield made the comment April 5 in support of a series of motions to move the regional district closer to adopting advanced recycling methods that could extend the life of landfills and turn the community’s waste into sources of energy.
The disposition of household and commercial garbage has become a major problem for municipalities around the world, and B.C.’s coastal areas are not immune.
Powell River and the Cowichan Valley already ship their municipal waste by barge to private landfills in Washington state at exorbitant expense.
The Comox Strathcona region must spend about $28 million every six to seven years to open, operate and close up new landfill sites, a frequency that will escalate when the Campbell River landfill closes in 2023 and its waste is trucked to Pigeon Lake. That’s a cost to taxpayers of more than $300,000 per month.
“We can’t afford it (landfills) anymore,” Cornfield said.
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New technologies that employ advanced recycling methods could extend the life of CSWM landfill at Pigeon Lake, near Cumberland by 69 to 160 years, while releasing significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to consultants employed by the regional district.
The CSWM committee voted unanimously this week to invite two technology companies to meet with the board. The two, Sustane Technologies and Waste Treatment Technologies, were the leading contenders from a longer list of responders to a 2017 Request For Information for waste-to-energy technologies.
The committee also voted to ask the Ministry of Environment to explain provincial regulations that appear to restrict when local governments can adopt waste-to-energy solutions.
And the committee also directed staff to monitor the progress of Sustane Technologies first Canadian operation in Nova Scotia and its eight-year-old facility in Spain.
The committee’s actions rejected a recommendation by Chief Administration Officer Russell Dyson to put off further investigation of alternate waste disposal technologies until 2022, when a 10-year update of the solid waste management plan is due.
But there are still outstanding issues.
The 70 percent rule
Ministry of Environment regulations seem to require that local governments achieve a 70 percent diversion rate before getting provincial approval to explore waste-to-energy technologies.
That might mean that 70 percent of all waste arriving at Pigeon Lake from households and commercial sources must be reduced, recycled or reused, but the definitions and details of how the 70 percent figure is calculated are unclear.
The Comox Strathcona operation currently diverts 48 percent of waste, but when the organics composting facility opens next year in Campbell River, that number will jump to nearly 60 percent.
A representative of Morrison Hershfield, a consulting engineering firm hired to assess various new waste disposal technologies, said the ministry’s number “isn’t set in stone.” He said it’s examined on a case-by-case basis.
He said if the regional districts have a plan and is making a good effort toward diverting 70 percent of waste, a move toward newer technologies is likely to get a favorable response from the ministry.
Cornfield believes the 70 percent number was pulled “out of thin air.”
“Where did the 70 percent come from?” Cornfield said. “Our role as a board, as politicians, is to make the case that we’re close enough to move forward.”
Cornfield pointed out that the CSWM operation diverts more than double many other regional districts and that in many countries of the world, such as the U.K., there are no landfills at all.
Buying garbage, he said is a “horrible waste of an asset” that can be reused as energy.
Cost versus greenhouse gases
The Morrison Hershfield consulting study and detailed cost analysis by Comox Valley Regional District staff concluded that “at this time” it is less expensive to continue buying garbage in landfills.
The newer technologies could cost double or triple the amount per tonne spent on landfilling.
The same report, which compared three different WTE technologies, also concluded that if Comox and Strathcona regional districts continue to bury their garbage in the Pigeon Lake landfill, we will produce 821,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) over the next 40-year period.
The worst (highest) CO2e emissions from any of the three reviewed WTE technologies was only 179,000 tonnes.
And one of the technologies would achieve a net reduction of CO2e by -777,000 tonnes. Yes, a minus number, or a positive CO2e impact.
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In other words, by implementing WTE technology, the entire north Island could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste by at least 80 percent, and possibly by roughly 200 percent.
Landfills are North America’s third largest source of methane, which is 25 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Risks of the leading edge
The least expensive and most environment-friendly new technology studied was proposed by Sustane Technologies.
Sustane uses an advanced recycling processes that include production of crude oil from all forms of plastic, which it refines into diesel oil fuel pellets. The company builds a mini-refinery onsite.
The problem is that Sustane’s technology, while lauded by scientists, has not been proven, according to Morrison Hershfield. Their longest-running plant in Spain has not consistently operated at a commercial level over eight years. And the first Canadian facility in Chester, N.S. is not yet operational.
The consultant said Sustane’s technology is interesting and unique, but is still experimental.
“It will mature, but it’s not yet proven,” he said.
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But Cornfield said whether its proven or not doesn’t scare him.
“It takes people willing to take risks, otherwise we’d never develop new technologies,” he said. “We have to break this cycle (of burying garbage in landfills) sometime.”
WTE Committee Chair Rod Nichol, representing Area B, agreed.
“There’s little risk for us,” he said. “If the technology doesn’t work as well as we hoped, we still have the landfill.”
Nichol and Corfield believe that Sustane or WTT would build and operate a plant themselves, and the fees they charge back for processing the region’s waste would be lower than what residents now pay. CVRD staff doesn’t share that belief.
Time to amend the long-term plan
CVRD CAO Dyson said putting off further investigation of new technologies now would give staff time to engage ministries and the public about amending the solid waste management plan, and give WTT or Sustane time to prove their technologies.
The ministry of the Environment 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.
Besides the new landfill at Pigeon Lake, the Solid Waste Management Plan calls for environmentally-mandated closure of all other landfills in the two regional districts; building transfer stations in those communities losing landfills; and, adding a methane burners and an organic composting facility in Campbell River that is scheduled to open next year.
Committee member Roger Kishi of Cumberland said he’s “certain we need to continue down the path to new technologies, but he’s not as certain that the potential companies will cover all the costs of construction and operation.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
The whole CSWM board must approve the recommended actions by the select committee at its next meeting on April 19.
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