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.”
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.
Metro Vancouver ships almost 500,000 tonnes of trash to the Cache Creek landfill but is now looking for an alternative.
“When we look at population growth and we look at increased diversion rates and the reduction in the amount of garbage we all consume, we still need to deal with quite a bit of garbage—if we decide not to go to a landfill, specifically Cache Creek,” Moore declared.
In January, Penner and then–community and rural development minister Bill Bennett approved a 42-hectare extension of the Cache Creek landfill, giving it an additional life span of 17 to 25 years.
Penner represents Chilliwack-Hope, a hotbed of opposition to incineration because of the area’s relatively poor air quality.
Ho, who did the mathematical modelling on the students’ project, said that if Metro Vancouver achieved its 70-percent recycling target by 2015—and if residents reduced their waste-generation rates to the OECD average by 2020—the region would only produce 400,000 tonnes per year of residual waste.
That’s only a third of the Metro Vancouver forecast, and would make a new incineration plant unnecessary.
“We are still not sure how the heavy metals, the nitrogen oxides, and the sulphur oxides that [would be] produced by the waste-to-energy facility would alter the air quality of the region,” Ho acknowledged. “Unless we have more research on that, we should be very careful about adding waste-to-energy capacity. With Metro Vancouver’s own projections—even if they add waste-to-energy capacity to the region—they are still projecting that we will put residual waste in landfills.”
On June 22, Ho and MacDonald gave a presentation on the students’ research to the Fraser Valley Regional District board.
After they spoke, directors voted to oppose Metro Vancouver employing “any form of combustion” in a waste-to-energy facility, including “incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, plasma technology, mass burn or any other similar technology”.
The FVRD resolution also rejected waste-to-energy as “a viable option for handling residual municipal waste, given”¦the uncertainty regarding the contaminants that would be discharged and the potential effects on human health and the environment in the Lower Fraser Valley airshed”.
Metro Vancouver officials don’t appear to be quite as interested in the students’ research. MacDonald expressed frustration that Moore and Metro Vancouver chair Lois Jackson have not responded to an e-mail requesting to speak to the Metro Vancouver waste-management committee.
“I understand if they don’t want us to come and present our work,” MacDonald said. “It does say very differently from what they’re proposing, but it would be decent and respectful if they could at least say, ”˜No, thank you.’ ”
Moore responded that he spoke to MacDonald at the Recycling Council of B.C.’s annual general meeting, but didn’t recall receiving an e-mail from her. He insisted that the students can speak to the waste-management committee, though he’s skeptical about their conclusions.
“I think we had some questions about the data that they were using in their analysis in the UBC report,” Moore said.
MacDonald, however, said Metro Vancouver can achieve the same waste-generation ratio as the OECD by paying attention to what has worked in other jurisdictions.
“And if we do, there is no reason why we need a waste-to-energy facility,” she insisted.
One of her instructors agrees, calling the students’ recommendations “absolutely achievable”. UBC earth and ocean sciences professor Douw Steyn, an ardent foe of incineration, told the Straight by phone that the students prepared a review of the scientific literature, which appears at the back of the report.
They were told to behave as if they were a professional environmental consulting company and recommend a course of action.
“I’m wildly impressed,” Steyn said. “But, you know, one of the reasons why this thing got to be so good is as they were working on it, the stakes got ratcheted higher and higher. And they simply rose in response to the stakes getting higher. They saw this is going to be important. There are people who are debating this issue. This had better be good.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer told the Straight by phone that she is also impressed by the students’ report.
It echoes what she and her Vision Vancouver colleagues on the Metro Vancouver board have been saying for months: reduce the amount of garbage going into the waste stream and this will eliminate the need to build a large incinerator.
Reimer said that the draft solid-waste plan emphasizes increasing incineration capacity rather than reducing per capita waste generation to the national average.
She claimed that this reduction could be accomplished by banning organic products (which can be composted) from landfills, introducing a pay-as-you-throw program, and pushing the provincial government to impose extended producer responsibility on more consumer products.
The Vision councillor said these actions would cost taxpayers far less money than a $400-million incinerator.
“Because the debate publicly has been so focused on this burn-or-bury issue, that whole question has been somewhat lost,” she said.
Reimer also called “waste-to-energy” a “bit of a red herring”. She flatly claimed that Metro Vancouver is proposing “mass burn”.
“It’s what the studies were done on,” she said. “It’s what the polling has been done on.”¦We want mass-burn incineration completely off the table.”
Veteran Richmond councillor Harold Steves shares this view, saying he is “totally opposed to waste-to-energy incineration”.
Steves, who sits on the waste-management committee, told the Straight in a phone interview that he suffers from asthma. He said he experiences breathing difficulties on smoggy days when he travels through Hope and Chilliwack.
“Yet it’s clear when I get to my home in Richmond because we’ve got the offshore breezes that bring in fresh air,” Steves noted. “So I have to watch where the smog is.”
Metro Vancouver commissioned a report by Aecom Canada Ltd., which examined eight integrated waste-management scenarios.
It stated that toxics, including dioxins and nanoparticles, are not an issue in modern incinerators. It also mintained that overall emissions will be reduced because new “district energy” will reduce the need to burn fossil fuels.
Reimer, however, said Metro Vancouver has one of the cleanest energy profiles on the planet because there is so much hydropower.
“Our problem is not emissions from electricity generation in Metro Vancouver,” she stated. “Our problem is buildings and transportation. If we’ve got $400 million to spend reducing climate impact, we should be spending it on buildings and transportation.”
In March, UBC atmospheric scientist Ian McKendry completed a study on behalf of the Fraser Valley Regional District that questioned some of Aecom’s conclusions.
McKendry recommended against adding any new sources of air pollution, including waste incinerators, because “there is a large body of credible published evidence to suggest that there is sufficient cause for concern around the potential health risks posed by modern waste incinerators, especially from dioxins and nano-particles.”
Metro Vancouver staff responded that there is also “a large body of credible published evidence” suggesting there should be no concerns about modern incineration.
In his interview with the Straight, Steves noted that decaying garbage in a dump emits greenhouse gases and pollutants through “slow oxidation”, whereas incineration is “rapid oxidation”. He emphasized that plastic doesn’t decay, so if it’s burned, this adds emissions to the airshed.
“My estimate is—and it’s my estimate because nobody will confirm or deny it—is that waste-to-energy will increase greenhouse gases in the region, carbon dioxide, by about six percent,” Steves said.
Metro Vancouver division manager Roger Quan, on the other hand, claimed in an April 23 report to the environment and energy committee that waste-to-energy reduces greenhouse gases “by avoiding fossil fuels which would otherwise be burned in the community to heat buildings or provide hot water, or by industrial facilities to generate process heat or steam”.
Steves pointed out that Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre is building a bioenergy-production facility that will take gaseous emissions from composting and convert them into energy. “What I said when we adopted this in Richmond a few months ago is if we can get every householder to be saving all of their food waste—and if we got all food waste from restaurants and stores and everything else—then there is absolutely no need for waste-to-energy incineration because all you have left is plastic,” he said.
Steves and Vancouver city council are not alone with their concerns about incineration.
In the past two months, Coquitlam council voted to ask Metro Vancouver to reconsider the waste-to-energy option. Port Moody council voted to recommend that Metro Vancouver exclude “combustion”, “incineration”, “mass burn”, and “incineration by gasification”.
Meanwhile, the District of North Vancouver council voted not to support a waste-management plan that “largely relies on incineration”.
Burnaby supports the addition of more capacity as long as it’s publicly owned and operated.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Metro Vancouver chair Lois Jackson stated that a director is not legally obliged to go along with his or her council’s recommendation to the board.
She also said that the plan does not “largely” rely on incineration because 70 percent of the waste will be diverted. “Waste-to-energy does not mean only incineration,” she noted.
Moore also said that the report’s recommendation for new waste-to-energy capacity doesn’t automatically imply that an incinerator will be built. The plan also mentions industrial use of refuse-derived fuel, gasification and pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion.
“The board might decide that landfill is the way to go,” Moore added. “It might decide that we can reduce the amount of garbage.”
In an interview over breakfast in Kyle’s Cafe on Commercial Drive, environmentalist Ben West scoffed at the suggestion that Metro Vancouver senior staff aren’t fully committed to incinerating garbage.
West, who works for the Wilderness Committee, claimed that the regional government talks about “waste-to-energy” because it’s more palatable to the public.
“I think mass-burn incineration would not poll well,” he said with a smile.
West spoke to the Straight shortly after returning from a trip to Detroit, where he attended a large demonstration outside the largest garbage-burning incinerator in the world.
“One of the things that there hasn’t been enough talk about, I think, is where all this incineration ash is going to go,” he said. “You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic ash.”
He predicted that it would end up in the Vancouver landfill in North Delta. Metro Vancouver chair Jackson has lived in North Delta for 35 years.
“She clearly hates the landfill,” West said. “She calls it her ”˜garbage mountain’.”
The disposal of toxic ash from incinerators is just one of several health concerns. West wants Metro Vancouver directors to examine research on nanoparticulates by University of Ulster toxicologist Vyvyan Howard.
According to a 2009 paper by Howard, modern bag filters used in incineration cannot trap these ultrafine particles, which can lodge deep in the lungs, allegedly causing problems in the cardiovascular and immune systems.
Meanwhile, the British Society for Ecological Medicine issued a report in 2006 citing “higher rates of adult and childhood cancer and also birth defects around municipal waste incinerators”.
It noted that fine particulates, which are released by incinerators, are associated with higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“The greatest concern is the long-term effects of incinerator emissions on the developing embryo and infant, and the real possibility that genetic changes will occur and be passed on to succeeding generations,” the BSEM report stated. “Far greater vulnerability to toxins is documented for the very young, particularly foetuses, causing cancer, spontaneous abortion, birth defects or permanent cognitive damage.”
The U.K. Health Protection Agency published a rebuttal, stating that the BSEM report relied on a “selected and limited use of the scientific literature” and “failed to acknowledge the impact of the legislative regime which minimises the potential for public exposure to emissions”.
“There are misleading statements on health issues, such as carcinogenicity, and the report misinterprets the ”˜precautionary principle’,” the HPA responded. It added that there is “a body of scientific evidence strongly indicating” that incineration has, “at most, a minor effect on human health and the environment”.
UBC’s Steyn said there is a “complex interplay” between where pollution is emitted and where the air-quality impacts are felt. Without knowing where an incinerator is located, he said, it’s impossible to measure its effects.
One potential site is on Tsawwassen First Nation land. Its 2009 industrial lands master plan mentions a possible “energy park” that would include a “state-of-the-art waste to energy station”.
“We’ve kind of parked it, if you will, until we know the outcome of the Metro Vancouver solid-waste management plan,” Tsawwassen chief Kim Baird told the Straight by phone.
Moore acknowledged that he has spoken to a representative of a waste-to-energy company owned by the Aquilini family, which has expressed an interest in developing a project on Tsawwassen land. Moore said that isn’t the only location under consideration, emphasizing that nothing will be built without a public tender.
“Our first step is to determine from a high level what the final plan is going to say,” he stated.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.