The future of garbage in Vancouver is plastics

Last week, Vancouver city council signed on to the Greenest City Action Team’s ambitious plan of cutting the city’s waste by 40 percent in 10 years.

What will our waste look like when we meet that goal? The biggest change is going to be a dramatic reduction in compostable organics.

Four Metro Vancouver pilot food scrap composting programs are already underway in smaller cities in the region, and the City of Vancouver is preparing to roll out the first phase of a citywide composting program.

In addition to food scraps composting, both Metro Vancouver and the city are targeting wood and paper products for more aggressive recycling programs. The reduction of food, wood, and paper products is going to change the composition of the region’s waste.

A report presented to Vancouver city council last March suggests that this will have a big impact on the GHG emissions of incinerators compared with landfills.

Currently a tonne of waste sent to the Vancouver landfill emits the equivalent of 382 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Incinerating that waste, by comparison, emits only 336 kilograms of CO2 equivalent.

But in 10 years, because of the change in the composition of our waste, the landfill will have lower GHG emissions than an incinerator. Because there will be less biodegradable material going to the landfill, there will be fewer methane emissions. The study estimates that the GHG emissions from a tonne of waste in 2020 will be reduced to 243 kilograms of CO2 equivalent.

The emissions from an incinerator burning that tonne of waste, on the other hand, will increase to 460 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Why is that?

Because when we get all those biodegradable organics out of our waste what’s going to be left is a higher and higher proportion of non-recyclable plastics. (Remember, plastics are made from fossil fuels.)

One more reason to hold the order on waste incinerators.

Helen Spiegelman is a Vancouver-based environmentalist and blog coordinator. Read more at Zero Waste.



David Wong

Oct 27, 2009 at 10:58pm

why can't we place a recycling fee for plastics? And why are plastics non-recyclable? I believe everything is recyclable... we just have to make it worth its while.

Like a bottle deposit or something. If plastics were worth a bit of money for it's refundable deposit, I'd doubt people would throw it away in the trash... or at least, there'd be an effort by some folks to collect plastics to earn a bit of coin.


Oct 29, 2009 at 5:52pm


Garbage incinerators need fuel and the highest BTU's come from plastics. Without plastics and paper products there would be no fuel for garbage incinerators.

Having witnessed the 'stripping' process in the garbage pit at the Burnaby incinerator I can tell you, without those plastic bags wrapping up your garbage, which also contains a good amount of plastic, those incinerators would be worse that a smoldering camp fire during a rain storm.

Stripping: A grapple hook lowers into a pile of garbage and gently squeezes and separates the plastic bags from their garbage. The plastic stripped from the garbage pile is placed in a corner and used to increase temperatures within the incinerator boilers when either the boiler fire starts to smolder or federal government environment inspectors are in the area measuring emissions. A hot fire releases less of some airborne emissions.

Incinerators are a scam. They have always been.

For every 5 tonnes of garbage burned a tonne of ash, including ash loaded with heavy metals is produced at the Burnaby incinerator.

Time to take our heads out of the sand.

Let's put this intiative where it belongs, buried deep within the engineering department of Metro Vancouver's garbage pails.


Nov 16, 2009 at 1:36pm

Waste to Energy does not seem to have a large place in the public consciousness of Canada. In the mind of many Canadians Waste to Energy is equated with stench and smoke. Canadians rather use land filling as THE option to handle waste. I guess you guys just have lots of space to do so. But in the end nobody does anything with the waste. You either create a waste mountain or you export it. Are these sustainable options? NO
Europe has a lot of advanced technologies when it comes to recycling and waste to energy.

plastic recycling:
BC doesn't have any facilities to recycle the plastic materials. It's all about shredding, compressing and shipping it away. And what happens then.... ever wondered why there is soooo much plastic waste in the ocean? It has the size of Alberta and Saskatchewan together - a layer of plastics. This way fish eat it, plastics enter the food chain and at the end are we - humans. It's already traceable in our blood! You cannot just put it away or ship it away! Nobody is going to clean up after you...
If it comes to plastic recycling there is a great technology that converts plastics back into oil. And I am talking about all the plastics and not just about the ones with a number on it!

waste to energy and landfills:
Landfills, too, are sources of cancer causing substances. Roughly half of the gas emitted by landfills is methane, while the other half is carbon monoxide. A small minority in gas comes in form of vinyl chloride and benzene. These two chemicals are two with the highest cancer potency factors in humans. Incinerators emit Benzene as well, but landfills emit it at hundreds of times the rate incinerators do.
Ever wondered what comes out of a landfill? Since there is no stack, nobody here sees it.

Looking at Europe, there are some great waste to energy technologies available. People always think about incineration - there are also other technologies available, that have nothing to do with a combustion process. Certainly past experience with incinerators has made evident, a number of issues. But there have been research and developments for the last 20 years. Technology has significantly improved! For example: A study of the Johnston Island incinerator showed that it was emitting 22.9pg/second (dioxins and furans). A diesel truck traveling at an average speed of 40 miles/hour with equal amounts of uphill and downhill driving emits 89pg/second (dioxins and furans). So one truck creates 4 times as much dioxins and furans than an incinerator – and the ratio of trucks to incinerators is somewhere in the ten thousands - worrying about dioxins and furans from incineration seems a weak argument.
Cigarettes are another major source of dioxins and furans. The smoke from one cigarette contains 1pg of dioxins and furans. So the Johnston Island incinerator emits the same amount of dioxins and furans as if somebody would smoke 23 cigarettes a year. Incineration and the example of the Johnston Island incinerator is not meant to detract from the serious nature of dioxins and furans. It just brings the emission of dioxins and furans in a proper context.

So, do you think hauling garbage around and bringing it up to Chache Creek is a good option? People need to understand, that they have to deal with their waste locally. I don't want to encourage producing waste, the goal is preventing it in the first place!

Everybody is talking about "Zero Waste Management" A recycling based economy that meets its own needs perfectly. Discarded materials are resources for others to use. We need to close the cycle and come out of the dead end landfill street. There are great alternatives out there, just take a look around!