Waste-to-Energy Event, Wed., Jan.22, 2013: The Opening Public Salvo

Ron Bolin: January 23, 2013

At its opening invitation-only public promotion salvo yesterday, the proponents of an incinerator at Duke Point brought in Mr. John Foden, Executive Director of the Canadian Energy From Waste Coalition to provide some remarks on Waste-to-Energy in the context of what is happening in the incineration wing of the waste industry.  The meeting at the Coast Bastion was attended by, I would guess, some 40-50 attentive attendees.  In addition to the main speaker there were opportunities to ask questions of the proponents. I have requested a copy of Mr. Foden’s presentation in which he was careful to present the case for incineration at a general level, leaving questions regarding the specific proposed Duke Point WtoE plant to the Proponents: Wheelabrator; Urbaser; and SeaSpan.  I will post it if it is made available to me.

We were also treated to a fine cold lunch spread as well as a beer and wine bar.  Four current Councillors were present as well as one former Councillor, and a former MLA.  The meeting was well planned and managed and was appreciated.  There is no question that the subject of what is to be done with all the garbage we are creating is one which calls for urgent attention.  We are dealing with a multi-billion dollar waste industry whether we prefer land fill, incineration or something in between.  And if population and waste production continue as they have in past couple of decades, the industry will only get bigger.  This one project for Metro Vancouver which is the object of Mr. Foden’s visit is estimated to cost $500,000,000.  Just a small percentage of this figure can lead to a lot of income, both immediate and long term.

The opening slide in the presentation depicted the scale of the problem given the amount of waste produced in various countries across the world and showing Canada as the worst offender with well over 1000 units of garbage per capita.  He did not comment on the fact that many European countries were shown as producing less than half that amount nor how they performed this miracle of minimizing waste.  A subsequent question in this regard did not extract any particularly informative explanation.

I found it a common problem that the presentation papered over a number of hidden assumptions such as suggesting that we humans, and especially Canadians, are such prodigious producers of garbage that it is impossible to imagine that the volume of garbage which is required to operate a WtoE enterprise would not grow and the feedstock for the incinerator be reduced.  I find this a very big assumption to make when in fact there has been very little consideration given to the problem and few significant carrots or sticks applied it.

Another slide purported to show the effective reduction of possible recycling benefits based on a model which involved the reduction in the market for the recycled materials with increasing quantities of them, apparently due to market saturation.  The key question in this discussion was, in my opinion, passed over: i.e. what is the market for recycled materials and what factors affect it.  The fragmentation of the waste industry which has grown more or less willy-nilly until the scope of the problem may finally be recognized; an apparent distaste for working with reprocessed goods in a local environment which may not produce sufficient volumes for comfortable planning; and a tendency to simply ship our waste wholus-bollus overseas where it is out of sight and out of mind has led, I would suggest, to only faint imagination in the organization of these materials and of the industries which could use them.  One local student of this problem has identified waste as “Garbage minus Recyclables”.  The problem with this definition is there is no definition of what recyclables are.  What is recycled is determined by both the private market and by government fiat.  The private market is set by those elements which can be profitable plucked from garbage and that is based on commodity prices and the available of sufficient inputs for a given profitable volume of production in their reuse. The government market depends on whatever our bureaucrats and legislators choose to define as recyclable for health or other reasons and thus provide objectives for which they are willing to tax uss.  So the definition of “recyclable” is a moving target along several axes and certainly not definable as G minus R.

Indeed, an incinerator is itself a market which must acquire waste to operate and thus to create electricity more or less efficiently.  I believe that it will be found that the economics of an incinerator depend on the source material for burning being either free or subsidized and that efficient and effective recycling can increase the costs of operation as the feedstock needed for burning is removed.  I look forward to hearing more about the costs of the entire cycle, who pays them and who benefits from them in the processes of waste removal, recycling, and disposal by any and all means available.

It must also be noted that of the incineration methods available, only one type is being proposed for a Nanaimo operation, i.e. what is known as a mass burn incinerator.  While I do not propose to go into any detail about these methods (information on this subject can be found by googling “waste incinerators” for example), my examination shows that mass burn is not the most efficient or effective form of incineration, but rather that that title goes to the technology known as plasma gasification in which temperatures can go as high as 20,000 degrees, a level at which the process is more one of molecular decomposition than burning which leads to minimal deposits of any kind.  In response to a question in this regard it was stated that this technology is still in its early stages and has not yet proven scalable.  To the best that I have been able to determine, this is true.  Mass burn has been around for decades and in that sense is proven.  But as far as technology goes, should we look to the future or to the past, particularly if there is no immediate rush.

The question of importing waste from Metro Vancouver also arose, but was generally given the “so-what” treatment along with hints of the possibility of piggy backing Nanaimo’s landfill problems which will arise in some 15 years or so at present levels of fill into a Duke Point incinerator along with discussion of the benefits to Nanaimo of plant construction and operation.  These must loom in the examination of this possible project, but to date there has been no estimates given other than the twinkles in the eyes of the promoters, both official and unofficial.  Were it to come to a matter of handling Nanaimo’s future waste incineration it would seem to be less expensive for us to ship our garbage to a Vancouver incinerator than the reverse.  There would be far fewer barges required.

A number of issues revolving around the difference between the mainland and Vancouver Island the Mid Island area were briefly discussed and turn on environmental instinct vs the lure of Mammon. I am sure that these elements will be contesting in the coming months as the proponents promise a long list of public discussions, meetings and both sides engage in public education and propaganda processes.

The next phase of Metro Vancouver’s process is due to be released in the next couple of weeks and it is anticipated that there will be some possible new locations for the incinerator announced.  Fasten your seatbelts, were in for a bumpy ride.  If you want to get an idea of how bumpy, you can go to www.facebook.com and enter the topic “Duke Point Waste to Energy Information Group” or “Eco-win Nanaimo” and follow along in the discussions on these facebook groups.  In addition to controversy and spite, a number of useful information documents can be found there.

In closing, let me mention one other notable piece of information which came from Mr. Foden’s presentation: “83% of Canadians are in favour of incinerators.”  Source: an uncited survey.