Metro Vancouver waste-to-energy incinerator opponents fired up for a fight

A plan to create a new energy source from up to 500,000 tonnes of trash each year has stirred up students and local politicians.

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.


Comments (18) Add New Comment
Anthony Ho
The undergraduate report featured in this article can be publicly accessed at:
Rating: +11
Why is Metro Vancouver's per capita garbage tonnage so much higher than the national average? I was unable to find any explanation of this in the student's paper. I am not saying it's not there, only that I could not locate it.

There are some figures in the appendix, but they don't seem to cover construction and building materials, such as scrap lumber, floor coverings, and gyproc. Where does that material appear in the figures on per capita waste?

Rod Smelser
Rating: +14
Vic Steblin
Thanks for getting me thinking. I just painted my fence to make it look better to someone somehow? Now I am thinking, why would anyone even want to paint a fence anymore? The fumes, the spills, the air quality, the cleanup with paint thinner since it was an oil-based stain, the recycling fee, the eventual toxins when the old fence has to be replaced, etc. The expense, it cost me $100 for 3 gallons, . . . why even have a fence? I recall how beautiful the unpainted buildings were during the homestead days, just gradually fading away, with no need to impress anyone. We have been duped with this need for paint and clean and silliness?
Rating: +4
Matthew Burrows
Rod - See the quote below from MacDonald. Is your answer to be found therein?

“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.”
Rating: -3
===>>> Matthew Burrows

I saw that passage but I don't know how to relate that to the figures in the Appendix, ... nor do I know what happens to old gyproc I take to the transfer station. Wood waste goes into either a "compost" pile if unpainted, or up to Cache Creek to be landfilled along with most other construction left overs.

Rod Smelser
Rating: +1
John McCrossan
It is good to see students taking ownership of the issues that will affect their health and quality of life in the next 50 years. With 6 billion people on the planet, uncontrolled combustion that has worked for 200 years, does not work now and wont work in the future. Drawing the line at installing an Incinerator is a very good start and will show leadership in rolling back unnecessary combustion.
Now, let us see some follow through and implement any number of neighbourhood programs and "push-back-to-corporations" to reduce the mountains of trash that consumerism creates.
It is also extremely important that "Air Quality" decisions are not based solely on "ambient pollution counts". Ambient pollution is where maximum dispersion of pollutants occur. We need municipality programs to define standards, and monitor and reduce air pollution hotspots as found in "Neighbourhood Pollution Counts" and "Front Door Pollution Counts", they are the locations that have given 10% of Canadians lung diseases.
I applaud the students for their contributions and I urge all thinking responsible adults to write to your Mayors and Councillors and demand "no incineration" and "better air quality".
Rating: +1
Ardnemar Kiv
This article has a ugly agenda, one that it isn't based on thoughtful consideration. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, after all how could any grassroots movement be based on misinformation and hearsay?

I am certainly not pro-WTE, but this article does not point out that much of the science repeated by these activists is questionable (except for one small sentence - nor does it examine pro WTE scientists, just politicians). Pro-WTE information is presented horribly by Metro Vancouver, but there is a plethora of it, yet it is all immediately denied by anti-WTE individuals.

There is no hidden agenda here - Metro Vancouver isn't trying to avoid recycling and reduction, or sleep with big business, it's a incredibly difficult situation that has MV being turned down with whatever it suggests, going on for many years now.

And these "alternative" solutions that are offered are hopelessly idealistic, with regards to cost or logistics. Reduction is achievable, to a point, but then it gets exponentially, and prohibitively, expensive. Same with recycling.

Again, WTE is not ideal, but this raging against the machine gets us nowhere, except mired within a web of misinformation and cynicism.
Rating: +3
Have you ever been stuck behind a garbage truck in Metro Vancouver?

I have, twice in 1 week. As I impatiently, followed the garbage truck, I couldn't help but watch in disgust garbage cans full of plastic bag after plastic bag filled with waste been tossed into the back of the truck. The plastic bags were been ripped apart by the trucks teeth spilling all of our garbage into the back of the truck.

I thought to myself why are we still using plastic bags? Why are we not at the very
least putting our garbage in disposable bags or no bags at all? Why does our garbage not just go directly into our garbage cans at home? I also wondered what else is going into that garbage truck that doesn't need to be.

Shortly after this I heard and started to get emails about Metro Vancouver's incinerators plan. Their solution to our waste problem!
To burn our garbage and pollute our air, how outrageous! Why is it the only air we have to breathe gets tossed around and taken so lightly to be filled yet with even more pollutants.

As Metro Vancouver has assured me that they are looking very seriously at addressing the residential wood smoke problem that we have, I can't believe that they would even consider burning our garbage.

What else has Metro Vancouver considered?
Where is the composting? Heavy duty recycling? Why is Metro Vancouver not stepping outside the box to fix our extravagant waste problem. Instead they are following, not becoming a leader, not setting a green example for others to sit up and take notice. We don't need more burning in Metro Vancouver. We don't need to burn wood and we certainly don't need to burn our garbage. What we do need is clean air to breathe!

The Zero Waste says it all and the Canadian Clean Air Alliance agrees with this.
Where is the composting? Heavy duty recycling? Why is Metro Vancouver not stepping outside the box. Why are they not becoming a leader but instead they are following, because it is the easier route to go. Not the greener but the easier.

Politicians need to step up and do the right thing to protect the only air we have to breathe. People need to wake up to our new world where recycling, cutting down on waste and composting is the new way of life.

We need fines and stiff penalties for people who refuse to comply. Gone are the days of throwing everything away including the kitchen sink.

Jobs can be created. New ideas need to be put into place, burning is not an option.

What I do know for sure is:
Our legacy should not be to see how much more destruction we can leave behind but how we cared enough to make a difference. To think about what is the best way to dispose of our waste? How can we lead and set an example to other Canadians and to the world. With the disaster that is currently taking place in the Gulf of Mexico why can't we start here in Metro Vancouver to work together as partners become allies and become the greenest place in Canada if not the world. Remember burning garbage and wood is an option...breathing is not.
Rating: -5
Dave Warner
My sentiments, but the bigger scheme is to barge all of the Lower Mainland's waste up to Gold River, and burn it in the old pulp mill there. That's upwind from Strathcona Park, but the wildlife can't organize a protest. My guess is that 99% of Lower Mainlanders are clueless about this solution, since it won't be in their airshed.

We have to get beyond NIMBY.
Rating: +7
Why not impose heavy penalties on those who routinely dispose of plastics, not to mention the 40% food waste? Why do we tread tenderly on this score?

One answer: because residents who get dinged (heavily) would be so pissed off at all the packaging they get with their purchases, they'd demand something different.
Rating: -1
To RickW. How smart you are! I agree 100%. Right now in Vancouver people have taken to burning their own garbage between woodsmoke and burning garbage how will Vancouver ever be the greenest city in the world.
Rating: 0
Nicola Petruzzelli
the trend all over the world is to burn garbage in incinerators,which now days are fitted with catalysts,and scrubbers,so all you get out as emissions is water,basically the same as internal combustion the ashes that are left take very little space to dispose of.until something comes up in the future,that is better,incinerators are the only way to go...
Rating: +9
Cat Schachtel

The E.P.A. in 2009 came down strongly in favor of waste to energy plants over landfills as the most environmentally friendly destination for urban waste that cannot be recycled. Embracing the technology would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, but also yield copious electricity, yet environmental group continue to passionately fight against it preferring the simplistic alternative of force people to recycle.
This “passionate fight” is irrational and cherry picking the research confirms to point. This technology is currently used very successfully in Europe where high standards in emission control are the norm. Nothing could be more wrong than continued use of land fill as a means of disposal.
Rating: +2
Sabina K, Communications Specialist
Please check out the students' presentation to the Fraser Valley Regional District Board on June 22, 2010.!/video/video....

For more information on the waste to energy debate please check out our website, visit us on Twitter @AQ Matters. and on Facebook at Air Quality Matters.
Rating: +9
Peter Pan
Rating: +4
glen p robbins
On the sorta subject of user pay -- what about the recycling of newspapers and advertising filler. In the Tri-City alone - the 2 - twice per week publications Tri-City News and Now -- publish millions and millions of pages of 'poorly' recycled newsprint every week. Each newspaper print dumps about 70,000 on doorsteps and elsewhere every week. The advertising fillers like Canadian Tire, Safeway, and other well knowns is newsprint that is barely recyclable.

In 2004-2005 my company researched this determining that our recycling of newspaper and such compared to a green jurisdiction like Oregon was pitiful. At the time I had an ongoing debate with a Progressive Conservative MLA about our newpapers/newsprint (recycle @ 38%) --- and Alberta's which recycled at a much lower rate than virtually anywhere including way lower than Texas (we were also were polluters with newspaper print than Texas as well). The Albertan MLA said essentially that cutting off this pollution would hurt jobs---------------------------

I mean-- really--- the thought that competition among businesses to include 70,000 pieces of 'garbage' to advertise a loss leader item at a chain hardware store for nose hair trimmers and weed eaters ++ ($8 wages) ---------------- or the loss leader on Sirloin Steak -- so that a few others will buy butter or potato chips while in the store --- then charging homeowners to pick up this trash (the city keeps the trash newspaper $$) --- when these businesses should be evolving in their communication with customers (email) etc. beyond the trash advertising - which homeowners are subsidizing------/ is hard to swallow if you are a fair minded person. At a minimum these newspapers ought to be charging for the newspapers -- rather than dumping garbage on doorsteps. I admit that some people are used to the newspapers -- and many are interested in bargains alleged inside -- but on a polluter pay basis---- this is no bargain.

This is a very practical issue that no-one talks about much-----but it is the elephant in the room in terms of 'local pollution'.
Rating: +9
- At night the prevailing winds are from east to west (from land to ocean) and therefore will minimize air pollution if locate incinerators close as possible to the ocean. This is best for pollutant dispersion also. Good locations would be west Richmond, Tsawwassen, Vancouver Westside, Point Grey, University Endowment Lands and West Vancouver.

- The incinerator manufacturers are influence peddling and maybe even go as far as to give money and inducements to the staff and politicians who can help them get incinerators in place. Just with staff and public officials (solid waste management committee) at Metro Vancouver they have had 20+ years to curry favour with them, and in all effect, corrupt the process. Its all too cozy between this industry that stands to benefit greatly financially and the public officials who are mandated to look after the public interests and not their own.

- This is why the independent experts from UBC are against incineration but the Metro Vancouver staff are not - it is simply a matter of people being corrupted. It is time for wholesale staff reviews and changes at Metro.

- All MLAs, MPs, and city councillors and may have a duty to our health. If they are under the influence of the incinerator lobby, lets turf them out of power. This is especially true for the elected officials that represent people more than 10km in land (from Georgia Strait).

- I have a post graduate degree in atmospheric science and have seen in my career the influence peddling and bribery that goes on.

Rating: -2
Why did metro vancouver ignore other systems, including one that has zero emissions and is being paid by private business. They never intended on listening to the public. In Europe they are trying to ban them and Germany has blocked three new applications. There have been explosions in one plant and notice there is no word on the one that burnt down. Another is so expensive to run they have to charge 175 Euro per ton tipping fees and only the medical waste group will pay that. I saw lots of bs by the group. The plant also still produces a lot of toxic waste compared to other systems. I know one that is going to be announced or has started contacting the local authorities to try and show an alternative.
Rating: +6
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