I’ve been spending time at the hospital with one of my family members who is under the weather. After almost walking right through the IV line going into my brother’s arm, he mentioned he had been talking with his nurse about what happens to all the medical supplies used to treat patients. Straight into landfill was the nurse’s assessment. But that got me thinking about incineration and energy, because what else are you going to ponder when one of your favourite people is making you sick with worry?
Burning waste and capturing the energy, called waste to energy (WtE) or waste incineration with energy recovery, is widely practised across Europe. Germany is the WtE leader with 1,010 megawatts of installed municipal waste capacity, according to data aggregator Statista, followed by the United Kingdom at 733 MW and Sweden at 623 MW. In Germany, WtE accounted for 4.3% of Germany’s primary energy use as of 2018.
Given Europe’s current energy predicament, one might assume the continent would be embracing WtE as another option to replace the capacity lost when Russia turned off the natural gas taps. But the technology has its detractors.
Environmentalists say WtE produces greenhouse-gas emissions and encourages the continued creation of garbage, thereby undercutting reuse and recycling programs. Given the big policy push underway in the EU to bring an end to plastic waste, it’s also possible WtE plants could eventually run out of material to burn.
WtE proponents say the process produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than waste left to decompose in landfills, because it emits harmful gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
Canada, like most major economies, is in the throes of a major energy transition, and it also has a garbage problem. The amount of garbage produced by Canadians increased 16 per cent to 36.5 million tonnes between 2002 to 2018, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, with 72 per cent disposed mostly into landfill and about five per cent incinerated. Landfill, as India-based research firm Mordor Intelligence notes, can in no way keep pace with the amount of garbage Canadians are generating.
“The advancements and penetration of WtE (waste to energy) technologies in North America have still not resonated with the pace at which the waste gets generated in the region (Canada),” Mordor said in a report on incineration. “The region’s decreasing availability of landfill space is creating a shift toward the development of renewable energy, which provides the market with immense potential for growth in the near future.”
What’s the state of WtE in Canada? Samuel Lafontaine, an Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson, said in an email that policy decisions about waste management are usually made at the local or provincial/territorial levels of government. However, he added that the federal ministry has commissioned a study on WtE that is scheduled for release in March.
In the meantime, WtE plants are chugging away on the ground. Metro Vancouver has been operating a WtE facility since 1988 in Burnaby. The plant burns “roughly a quarter of the region’s garbage,” according to its website and produces electricity for 16,000 homes. It also reportedly earns $8 million annually from selling electricity.
Earlier this month, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre in northwestern Saskatchewan opened. The WtE facility burns leftover wood from nearby lumber operator NorSask Forest Products LP. The centre is expected to generate 8.3 MW of power, 6.6 MW of which is destined for the provincial grid, according to the CBC.
Critically, no one is trying to whitewash WtE facilities. Emissions monitoring data for the Burnaby plant lists compounds such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, their allowed limits and the emissions figures from the three boilers. If Germany, the poster child for environmental activism on a government scale, can find a way to use WtE, why can’t Canada?
In the tangled web that is the environment and energy file, Ottawa has imposed a ban on some plastic items including single-use bags and straws that started to take effect this year. But the items included in the ban are just the tip of a massive plastic garbage iceberg.
Perhaps it’s time to take an old technology and make it fit for purpose in this new-energy age.
— Gigi Suhanic