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The Fourth R

Durham Region is moving forward with its energy-from-waste facility after six years of controversy. Is recovering energy from waste putting recycling programs and our environment at risk? We partnered with law firm BLG 
to organize a discussion about whether Canadians should start saying reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover.

Posted on June 27, 2011

Across Canada, at least a dozen municipalities and regional councils are considering energy-from-waste (EFW) incineration for their residual wastes. Metro Vancouver is now formally on the path to building one or more EFW incinerators by 2015. Ottawa and Edmonton have deals with Plasco Energy Group and Enerkem, respectively. But those are essentially pilot projects at this stage. Plasco’s project is also purely a waste management facility—there is no power purchase agreement (PPA) involved.

In Ontario, Durham and York Regions’ plan to build an EFW plant excites some industry players and worries others. Concerns over emissions standards, pricing mechanisms, and the facility’s effect on existing waste diversion tactics have made this a rocky approvals process for the project’s proponents.

The exclusive roundtable took place at BLG's offices in downtown Toronto.

This May, ReNew Canada, in partnership with law firm BLG put together a roundtable session to discuss issues surrounding EFW (scroll to the end for a list of participants. For more on the economics of this EFW project, click here)

At the roundtable, Mirka Januszkiewicz, director of waste management services for Durham Region, said other municipalities considering EFW must also be considering whether they really need the political headache.

While it’s legitimate to ask whether EFW is the most economically and environmentally sound solution for the region, the lengthy approvals process has also exposed some real weaknesses in policy and leadership at all levels. Arguments surrounding the project demonstrate the lack of holistic policy around waste management and collaboration across jurisdictions. When asked, the Province of Ontario says waste management is a municipal issue. Municipalities will say they’re taking their cue from the Province and, in the absence of direction, making the best decisions they can.

Adam Chamberlain, a partner with BLG, said that dealing with the Province of Ontario over the last decade on waste issues has been frustrating for municipal and other stakeholders as, while acknowledging that waste planning is required, the Province has not taken an active role in providing policy direction.

When the Province does get involved, there’s no clarity as to whether this is a waste management, energy, or environment issue. The fact is, it’s all three. The project touches on so many issues (waste, energy, environment) and has so many potential concerns (pricing issues, emissions, effect on recycling programs) that it’s difficult to have a focused conversation.

“This is the challenge,” said John P. Foden, president and CEO of the Canadian EFW Coalition. “You talk to the energy guys, and they say it’s an environmental problem; you try to talk to environment about price and they say you’ve got to talk to energy. Trying to find someplace where there’s actually a conversation happening between energy and environment and you are allowed some meaningful input is impossible. The place doesn’t exist yet.”

The whole waste picture

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA) hasn’t been in the trenches of this debate. As Amir Shalaby, VP of power system planning for OPA said, “In the electricity business, we recognize that waste management is primarily a municipal issue. The Ontario ministry of environment (MOE) has very specific views about waste and waste incineration, and the technology’s attributes.

In fact, Shalaby doesn’t see EFW as a power issue. “We see the waste issue starting from waste, not electricity. In the end, there may be some energy that we [the OPA] can pick up, but that’s not the driver; it shouldn’t be. It’s driven by tipping fees, and by landfill avoidance.”

Januszkiewicz agreed. “You don’t start an EFW project because you’re looking for a new source of electricity; you do it because you want to reduce reliance on landfills.”

But Foden doesn’t see it as purely a waste issue. “If this was just a waste problem, we would burn it and put the ash in a landfill site and you wouldn’t care whether there was power [generated] or not,” he said. “The whole point is to extract the energy—55 per cent of the garbage that goes into the waste stream is biogenic, and therefore a renewable energy source.”

“But you don’t start the project by saying, ‘How do we make electricity, let’s get all the waste in the world,’” said Shalaby.

Lars Henriksson with the Swedish Trade Council pointed out that, while that may be true, this waste management solution is part of a holistic approach that considers energy. “None of your colleagues in Sweden would say they want to get rid of waste,” he said. “They would say that we would take advantage of the energy content that the waste contains.”

Henriksson’s holistic way of thinking isn’t as common in Canada as it is in Sweden, where centralized EFW plants manage waste for an entire region. While Canadian municipalities are only now beginning to consider district energy (DE)—energy distribution systems that deliver thermal energy to buildings from a central plant—Sweden has been developing these systems since the early 1980s.

While Januszkiewicz says Durham recognizes DE as a viable option—in fact, during construction, they are going to put in place all the necessary systems and equipment to support DE—the population densities simply aren’t there yet. She said, “The problem in Durham with DE is that our planning principles are different from Europe’s. We ‘promote’ urban sprawl. If you don’t have the population density, from an engineering standpoint, you can make it happen, but the losses of heat will be too great to make the option viable.”

Matthew Gaskell, also with Durham Region, said they are currently working to promote better-planned, more dense communities, but that DE is likely not in the cards for residential communities. “The reality is the majority of the communities are already in existence. These [EFW] plants probably won’t be located in residential areas like in Europe, there’s just too much public concern. More likely they’ll be located in industrial and commercial areas.”

Feeding the beast

The public has expressed concern over more than just location. There is a laundry list of potential issues with the plan to incinerate a region’s waste. Receiving the most mainstream coverage: the potential conflict with recycling efforts.

Durham Region will have to generate 140,000 tons of waste per year for some 35 years or pay the difference to project proponent Covanta Energy. Such contracts usually mean paying $200-$400 for every ton. The dense materials such as wood scraps, paper, plastics, tires, or waste oil these plants need to produce energy are some of the same materials that are easily recycled. Some are concerned this contract will force municipalities to scale down recycling efforts to meet quotas or, as Foden put it, “feed the beast.”

Matt Gaskell (in foreground) shares his side of the table with Adam Chamberlain (with law firm, BLG), colleague at Durham Region, Mirka Januszkiewicz, EFW Coalition's John Foden, and Norditrade's Lars Henriksson.

“It boils down to how you define recycling,” said Gaskell. “EFW is just another variant of recycling: it is taking a product and reusing it for a different fashion, in this fashion as a fuel.”

Jim McKay with HDR said, “Everyone is focusing on increasing diversion rates. At some point, the whole idea of why we recycle in the first place  gets lost.”

Januszkiewicz agreed, saying, “We have to learn from European models about recycling and diversion—it’s very misleading when you forget about the life-cycle analysis of every product.” She argued that we have to cost out (economically and environmentally) traditional recycling versus EFW.

Foden cited multiple U.S. cities that have EFW plants and boast higher recycling rates than most Canadian cities. He said, “You can go after all the recycling you need and it’s not going to affect the ability of that plant to operate.”

However, Durham Region currently doesn’t include 3-7 plastics in its recycling plans. The amount of waste they have could be drastically lower if 3-7 plastics were removed from the equation. The reason, according to McKay, is  “there’s no market for that stuff. If people do collect it, it’s going into a landfill site right now.”

That’s curious, because Lyle Clarke, VP of innovation and Blue Box at Stewardship Ontario, said, “We’ve made successful investments for processing 3-7 plastics in Ontario. Our biggest problem today is a shortage of supply material through the Blue Box program.”

McKay said there is in fact a company in Ontario right now that will take those plastics and convert them into diesel fuel, blend it, and send it back into the Ontario market as a diesel fuel. Ironically, they can’t get feedstock because the province considers that to be EFW and won’t fund it as recyclable. “When you look at that from a life-cycle perspective, and you look at the environmental impact of shipping to China (the other option for recycling 3-7 plastics), this is by far the better option. But because of the stigma around EFW, no one would ever support an initiative like that,” he said.

When Foden argues that cities like Markham which report diversion rates of 70 per cent are kidding themselves because  they landfill half of what they pick up at the curb, is he considering that while some plastics aren’t recyclable because they’re composites or end-of-line, a huge amount of material simply ends up in landfills because the recycling process is too expensive or there’s no market for the end product?

Januszkiewicz said, “There’s no point in expanding recycling programs if you don’t have the end market. In Durham, I can go and say we are collecting clamshells, and then what? They will go to a landfill.”

But she mentioned plans to find a market for the gypsum and other chemicals recovered through the EFW process. Why not just find a market for recycled plastics?

“You’re right,” she said, “but this is not the municipality’s responsibility. The Province has a huge role in shaping this industry. If the Province is going to foster these kinds of recycling opportunities, great. But with every product I bring to the blue box, I do an economic analysis and decide what makes sense. Otherwise, the taxpayer is subsidizing an industry that doesn’t exist.”

Policy

Januszkiewicz’s position illustrates perfectly the damage a lack of good policy and big-picture thinking has done in Ontario and across Canada.

Shalaby said, “You just said, it’s not the municipality’s job to deal with plastics. Places to Grow is a provincial policy; municipal planning is a municipal policy; environmental policy is provincially and federally regulated—heaven help us if we try and get compatibility and consistency. Is it the multiplicity of the decision-making in jurisdictions across Canada that’s getting in the way?”

“It does get in the way,” said Foden. “There is the need for some kind of provincial EFW policy.” At the same time, Foden said the federal government has actually shown support for EFW. “Based on Guideline A-7 (Air Pollution Control, Design and Operation Guidelines for Municipal Waste Thermal Treatment Facilities), you can see the Ontario government, from an emissions standpoint, is making progress. These are the toughest guidelines in the world and we believe that any new EFW plant will fit inside that envelope,” said Foden.

The Ontario government’s official position on EFW is that it recognises these facilities as viable waste disposal options, provided that all environmental controls are met and that they don’t impact waste diversion for recycling or material recovery.

EFW facilities must also not infringe upon waste diversion efforts—but there are few controls over this. When asked about the pressure on municipalities to provide a minimum amount of material or face fines from a company like Covanta, a spokesperson for the MOE would only say that is the municipality’s responsibility. A reasonable response given that municipalities have jurisdiction over waste diversion issues, but one that leaves municipalities to make their decisions—and defend them—on a case-by-case basis. Because there’s no clear roadmap for waste management in Ontario or Canada, Durham Region has done what it feels is best, with little collaboration with surrounding regions.

In contrast, AEB—Amsterdam’s waste and energy company—takes waste from 20 surrounding municipalities. In the coming years, 40,000 additional households will be connected to the district heating delivered by AEB. This type of coordinated planning has made AEB’s plant more economically viable.

Januszkiewicz said, “Our plant is very small, and it will require expansion in very near future. But for us there was no option. Other municipalities have the same problems as us, but there’s no unified solution to the garbage problem in Ontario. I strongly believe the Province should make the tough decision to build or encourage centralized EFW facilities.”

With this gap in policy thinking closed, said Januszkiewicz, EFW plants would be economically viable, and a discussion about DE would be more welcome.

Of course, Durham and York Regions are already working on this project together. If other municipalities came together on the issue, would the Province need to approve a centralized facility?

Gaskell said the help municipalities need from the Province is in creating a market that supports the decision to build centralized facilities. “If [the Province] wants enhanced recycling, create the incentives there, create the marketplace—municipalities can’t do that.”

Chamberlain agreed: “The MOE has taken the position for more than a decade that it doesn’t want to be in the waste business, from a policy point of view. One of the principle distinctions between what we see here and Sweden and much of Europe is that where there it’s more of an energy issue that seems to have had its genesis in the oil shocks of the early 1970s, here, we’ve got lots of energy; what we don’t have is a regulatory environment that permits waste facilities.”

Heather Douglas, a partner at BLG, said, “Recent developments in respect of the environmentally safe disposal of pharmaceuticals in other jurisdictions, like the United States, may help to make it easier for Canadian governments at all levels to support EFW facilities.” A recent study by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection shows that prescription drugs tossed into landfills pose a threat to surface and groundwater supplies. Some EFW proponents are working to dispose of pharmaceuticals safely. If municipalities promoted these types of good news stories to the media, said Douglas, it might mitigate some of the stigma surrounding these projects.

The price is not right

The policy may not be there to support these initiatives, but Brant Peppley, a researcher at Queen’s University, doesn’t think the technology—or the pricing—is ready, either. Responding to a comment Henriksson made about the technology being available to do EFW well, Peppley said, “I don’t think it’s in the market that we have in Canada. It might be there in Sweden where the price of energy is high enough to justify those technologies.”

Peppley argued that, on the energy generation side, it makes more sense to convert waste to diesel fuel via gasification then to electricity with combined heat and power. “There are virtually terawatts of waste heat coming from industry already, so if you’re looking for heat for DE, we can find plenty of sources.” (For more on district energy’s potential in Canada, click here).

As for solid waste, the biggest solid-waste-to-product initiative in Canada right now is Enerkem’s municipal solid waste (MSW) processing and gasification plant, located in Edmonton. Peppley said, “They extract all the value out of that waste before they put it into the gasifier and then do they put it on the grid? No, they turn it into ethanol; into fuel. It’s difficult to build a case with the technology available now to go to what is directly an electricity grid product—it has to be something into a value-added end product.”

“The Province needs to take some responsibility in creating a pricing structure that encourages [turning waste into energy], but we’re not going to go there until we get a price for what we want to sell,” said Peppley.

Developing effective pricing mechanisms for these EFW projects has been—and continues to be—a challenge. The “put or pay” contracts (which also demand large “tipping fees” for the waste delivered at the site) are part of the reason that municipalities such as Port Moody, B.C., and in Ontario, Halton Region, Niagara Region, and Toronto, have backed away from incineration.

Darryl Yahoda, manager, generation procurement at the OPA, said, “The fear is in setting a price, rather than looking at electricity alternatives, which is how the [current price of] eight cents came about, kind of as a proxy for alternative supplies. What are the principles that determine that price? How do you balance it with all the other potential revenue streams so that you’re not creating a disincentive to pursue them? The other concern is, price is so high that you get a gold rush and everybody wants to get in.”

Gaskell said, “Given our project, we went to the marketplace to find a vendor, find a technology, and at the same time were conducting an environmental assessment and negotiating with you [the OPA] to get a price. At the time, we didn’t know what price would make it work because we didn’t even know what the cost of the service was going to be in the marketplace. That issue will clarify to some extent as more facilities are developed, it become more clear what the pricing point is for affordability from the municipal sector.”

Shalaby said the current price may not be quite right. His concern is that the taxpayer may not appreciate paying a premium for electricity generated through EFW. “We should be mindful to balance the amount paid for electricity so that we don’t end up having the electricity consumer subsidize waste management,” said Shalaby.

McKay said that’s already happening, to a degree. “People in the north do the same thing for nuclear generation; they do it for coal; the same thing is happening with wind. You’re not taking the wind power and actually sending it to Timmins, you’re sending it wherever it goes.”

He also argued that people in Timmins are paying to help solve Toronto’s garbage problem. Greenlane landfill is collecting landfill gas that’s being sold to the grid at a premium. Toronto is even contemplating a facility at Greenlane with an anaerobic digester that would sell the gas produced at a premium.

“There are lots of examples of cross-subsidizations across the economy,” said McKay. “Those kind of arguments can be used to justify the position of anyone who wants into the marketplace.”

Despite his concerns over pricing, Shalaby said, “EFW will happen in Ontario. Technology, environmental pressures, energy prices, and sensible policy will converge some day. So demonstrate your project, and the next one will come, and the next one will come.”

Emission Control

To date, most of the research into the health impacts of waste-to-energy incineration—especially on dioxins, furans, and nanoparticles—has been done in Britain and Europe.

While proponents of EFW often point to Europe as proof that the technology can work and gain public support, those projects are not completely free of controversy and protest.

In 2005, after years of opposition, the Fibroned project, a biomass fired power station in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn, came to a halt when the project’s permit was rejected for the second time. This facility was not looking to use the same technology as the plant under development for Durham Region—the main fuel for this project was poultry manure—but the incident does point to a lack of complete acceptance in the Netherlands.

The stronger the regulation, the more comfortable the public may be with this technology.

In 2009, the Province of Ontario released Guideline A-7 Air Pollution Control, Design and Operation Guidelines for Municipal Waste Thermal Treatment Facilities. Applicants for Certificates of Approval for municipal waste thermal treatment facilities under Section 9 and Part V of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) can use the document as a guideline for incorporating pollution control systems into their facilities. It sets maximum allowable in-stack contaminant emission levels, as well as recommendations for acceptable design and operating parameters for “thermal treatment facilities” using both conventional incineration technology and other combustion equipment.

Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) finds one sentence in Section 6.3 of the guideline problematic. It reads: “The onus will be on the proponent to ensure that public health and environment are protected at all times.” A report released by the non-profit organization reads: “While it is understandable to demand that the proponent also strive to protect human health and the environment, this phrasing implies that it is not ultimately the responsibility of the director and the ministry to ensure that these things are protected. It must be the ministry which ultimately bears the onus of protecting human health and the environment at all times.”

According to the MOE, companies must conduct their own daily site checks to ensure all environmental controls are being met. This includes collecting emissions data daily from equipment and keeping records of it, should the government ask to see them.

When asked about opportunities for companies to falsify reports on emissions tests, a spokesperson for the MOE said she did not believe a company would break the law or lie to the government—this despite multiple fines having already been levied on some companies operating in the United States.

For more on the economics of this EFW project, click here. For more on district energy, click here.

Roundtable Participants:

Anthony Ciccone, Principal, Golder Associates

Adam Chamberlain, Partner, Certified Specialist – Environmental Law, BLG

Heather Douglas, Partner, BLG

John P. Foden, President and CEO, EFW Coalition

Matthew Gaskell, Senior Solicitor, Regional Municipality of Durham

Peter Hargreave, Director, Policy & Strategy, Ontario Waste Management Association

Mirka Januszkiewicz, Director of Waste Management Services, Regional Municipality of Durham

Lars Henriksson, President, Norditrade

Annemarie Turner, Waste Administration Assistant, Regional Municipality of Durham

James McKay, Solid Waste Manager, HDR Inc.

Glenn Miller, Education, Applied Research and Innovation, Canadian Urban Institute

Brant Peppley, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Fuel Cells – Department of Chemical Engineering; Director, Queen’s-RMC Fuel Cell Research Centre

Mira Shenker (moderator), Editor, ReNew Canada Magazine

Darryl Yahoda, Manager, Generation Procurement, Ontario Power Authority

 

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