Metro Vancouver waste-to-energy incinerator opponents fired up for a fight
An undergraduate research project rarely makes news. It’s even less common for a student term paper to influence debate over an important public policy affecting human health and involving hundreds of millions of tax dollars.
Yet this is what seven UBC environmental-science students managed to accomplish with their eight-month review of Metro Vancouver’s draft plan for dealing with garbage.
One of the students, Jessica MacDonald, recently dropped by the Georgia Straight office to discuss their report, Waste Solutions for Metro Vancouver.
“I never thought I would say I would feel passionate about other people’s garbage,” she said with a chuckle. But she acknowledged getting hooked on the subject after learning more about Metro Vancouver’s proposed solid-waste management plan.
One of its cornerstones is generating energy from up to 500,000 tonnes of garbage annually, possibly in a gigantic incinerator. This is in addition to an existing waste-to-energy incinerator in Burnaby.
According to the students’ report, adding a 500,000-tonne-per-year waste-to-energy project would sharply increase emissions of mercury, lead, cadmium, and dioxins from solid-waste disposal in Metro Vancouver.
These toxins accumulate in the human body, possibly contributing to everything from memory loss to cancer.
“Because the risks are so great, we can’t honestly put one in with a clear conscience,” MacDonald said.
Waste-to-energy facilities also result in greater emissions of nitrogen oxides, according to the report. These compounds generate smog when they interact with sunlight and volatile organic compounds.
Today (July 8), Vancouver city council will vote on a staff recommendation calling upon Metro Vancouver to seek an “independent review” of the impact of “mass burn incineration” on air quality and human health.
On Wednesday (July 14), Metro Vancouver will hold its final public consultation on its draft plan, and on July 30 the regional board is expected to vote. It would then have to be approved by Environment Minister Barry Penner.
One member of the UBC student team, Anthony Ho, told the Straight by phone that he strongly supports Metro Vancouver’s goal of recovering 70 percent of the material in the waste stream by 2015.
“But we also need to start thinking about ways we can reduce the amount of waste that we are generating in the first place,” Ho said, noting that this aspect was underplayed in the draft solid-waste management plan. “That is the key to making our waste-management practices have the least amount of impact to both the environment and to human health.”
According to Ho and MacDonald, the average Metro Vancouver resident generates 0.9 tonnes of municipal solid waste per year.
That compares to the Canadian average of 0.5 tonnes per person and the 0.4 tonnes per person in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is a group of 31 industrialized countries.
To determine how Metro Vancouver could bring waste generation down to the OECD rate, the UBC students relied on an integrated solid-waste management model run by the University of Waterloo.
They concluded that several measures, including an increased emphasis on extended producer responsibility, would do the job. ERP is a system in which industries are required to take back their discarded products, such as oil or printer cartridges, rather than having them go to a landfill or an incinerator.
In addition, the students support a pay-as-you-throw system, which imposes fees on consumers who generate more garbage than the norm. This has helped dramatically reduce waste generation in Taiwan.
The report also recommends enhanced recycling and composting programs.
“Having actually attended a solid-waste management planning public consultation, I do feel that Metro Vancouver has given the public a glorified sales pitch,” MacDonald alleged. “They have made our diversion rates look higher than they are because they have fused them together with DLC [demolition, land clearing, and construction] waste.”
Jessica MacDonald, one of seven UBC students who studied Metro Vancouver's waste management plan, discusses alternatives to incineration.
In a phone interview with the Straight, the chair of Metro Vancouver’s waste-management committee, Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore, said that after diverting 70 percent of the waste stream by 2015, the region will still have to dispose of 1.2 million tonnes of garbage.
The regional plan recommends that up to 500,000 tonnes be sent to a new waste-to-energy facility, with the rest ending up in the Vancouver landfill in Burns Bog or at a smaller waste-to-energy incinerator in Burnaby.