Landfill or incinerator: What’s the future of Toronto’s trash? - TorStar

March 12, 2013
Alyshah Hasham, Toronto Star

We have until 2029 before the landfill fills up, maybe longer if we do better at diversion. Then what?

There is a burning question facing municipalities across the province: What do we do with our garbage when the landfill is full?

Across much of the GTA, the answer — for now — seems to be energy-from-waste plants, the modern, cleaner face of incineration.

Peel Region is about to put out calls for another incinerator to be built in Brampton.

The Clarington incinerator being built by York and Durham regions is now a steel skeleton on the edge of Lake Ontario, on track to open for testing next spring or summer.

Farther east, Ottawa has signed a deal with Plasco Energy Group to use “plasma gasification” technology to convert waste to gas using high temperatures and electrical energy — a system still in its infancy for use in municipal waste systems.

For these municipalities, energy from waste is a way of slipping a fourth “R,” recovery, after the traditional three — reduce, reuse, recycle — and before the dreaded landfill.

“We can at least take the energy out, instead of putting it into the landfill,” says Norman Lee, head of waste management in Peel Region.

And while the municipalities outside Toronto move toward burning more of their waste, Toronto plans to continue trucking its leftover garbage to a relatively new landfill near London. At least for now.

Toronto’s longstanding opposition to incineration coalesced when David Miller — a staunch opponent of burning garbage — was elected mayor in 2003. In 2006, under pressure to find a solution to the shrinking landfill space available for Toronto’s waste, he convinced council to support the $220-million purchase of the Green Lane landfill.

Five years later, the city shifted to using Green Lane, halting the practice of sending up to 140 truckloads of garbage per day to a Michigan site. Today, Green Lane can generate 15 megawatts of electricity from landfill gas. At current rates of use, the landfill will last 16 years.

But what happens after that? Securing landfills or building incinerators takes time and resources. Municipalities must plan years ahead.

It’s unclear to what degree Torontians would support an incinerator solution. A Toronto Star-Decima Research poll taken before the 2006 municipal election showed a near-even divide, with 51 per cent of Torontonians in favour.
But there’s no doubt the issue will return.

On March 19, Toronto’s waste management division manager, Jim Harnum, will seek city council’s permission to launch a comprehensive look into a long-term waste strategy for all of the city’s post-recycling waste — from residential to school to small business.

Every option will be on the table.

“Are we going to expand the landfill, are we going to buy another one, are we going to burn it, are we going to turn it into something else, can we wait until 2027 and see if there is some magic out there?” Harnum says. “I don’t think we can wait. Anything we do in this sector takes 12 to 15 years.”

He is quick to point out that the city’s No. 1 waste-management priority is reducing overall garbage.

But so far, city residents and businesses have missed targets for diversion — recycling, composting and reusing materials — that would reduce amounts sent to landfill. And every missed target further limits the life of Green Lane.
In 2007, when the residential diversion rate was 42 per cent, the city set a target of 70 per cent diversion by 2010. In 2012, the actual rate was just 50 per cent. It’s projected to hit 52 percent in 2013.

But those weight-based ratios don’t reflect an important improvement: the overall tonnage of waste produced has dropped by 27 per cent because of lighter packaging and fewer newspapers being tossed, says Harnum.
He’ll suggest a new goal of 70 per cent diversion, which would extend the landfill’s life to 2036.

But that 30 per cent that remains to be dealt with demands a difficult decision.

“There are two different camps,” says Harnum. “There’s the people who want to save the land and the watershed, and the people who want to save the airshed. From a government standpoint, I have to deal with garbage, recycling and organics, so I have to do something. If I build an incinerator, there are people worried about smoke and pollutants . . . and there are other people who say when you put (waste) in a landfill for 200 years, it rots and it affects all these other things. . . . But it has to go somewhere.”

For York and Durham, that “somewhere” is a $284-million energy-from-waste plant that will fire up for testing in a few months.

The Clarington plant, built and operated by New Jersey-based Covanta Energy Corp., a global waste-management firm, will burn waste, producing steam that drives a turbine. Once fully operational, it will produce 20 megawatts, enough to power nearly 12,000 households.

The plan is to incinerate up to 140,000 tonnes of “residual garbage” — what’s left after recycling — including 20,000 tonnes a year from York Region. Metal will be extracted and recycled from the ash, which will be used in landfill covering or in construction.

The project is the first incinerator to be built in the GTA in 22 years. Covanta says it will face the most stringent environmental regulations in North America and, once opened, heavy scrutiny from the surrounding community.

The facility’s environmental assessment approval specifically excludes the possibility of taking Toronto’s trash.

Peel Region might be the site of another plant. The region is looking to upgrade after a 20-year contract with the Algonquin incinerator in Brampton ended last year.

“We needed reliability,” Lee says of Peel’s decision to pursue incineration and gasification. “It was the right decision for our municipality. . . . Another municipality may choose something else.”

The proposed site for the $300-million to $400-million plant is the region’s integrated waste-management facility at 7795 Torbram Rd. in Brampton.

A 2009 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that modern incinerators produce more energy and release less greenhouse gases than do landfills.

Still, many environmentalists remain opposed to energy-from-waste plants, arguing they produce harmful dioxins and remove incentives to divert waste because they demand a never-ending supply of garbage to keep the power on.
“When you make that capital investment, you need to keep giving material to that facility in order to justify that investment. You never build those facilities to shut them down,” says Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.

The most environmentally progressive approach is zero waste through reduce, reuse and recycle, she says.

“When you build an EFW facility, you are saying we will never get to zero waste, we are giving up that goal and we might even be retracting on our diversion goals . . . since we need to keep coming up with materials to feed it. So the incentive to recycle more goes down as a municipality.”

Emily Alfred, who handles waste policy for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, adds that plastic and organic waste are the most useful garbage to burn for energy. As those are diverted through recycling, she says, energy-from-waste plants would produce less energy and thus be less economically viable.

Peel’s Lee disagrees. Even with population growth and improved diversion rates factored in, he is adamant there will still be enough garbage to make the plant economically feasible for the next two decades.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario hopes that energy-from-waste will be seen as a method of diversion rather than disposal — recovery, rather than the absolute last-ditch option of landfill.

“Energy-from-waste should only be used for those products that can’t be used any other way up the hierarchy,” says Monika Turner, policy director for the AMO. It’s not popular with environmental advocates, she admits, “but isn’t it better to recover even a modicum of something from that product than sending it to a landfill site? And getting another landfill site in Ontario isn’t very likely.”

In Europe — where population density makes landfill impractical — state-of-the-art incineration is common and seen as a cleaner way of disposing of trash while producing heat and power. Countries such as Sweden, which now imports Norwegian waste to feed its incinerators, boast the some of the world’s highest recycling rates, Turner says.

EFW is also more expensive, notes Harnum. A plant costs around $300 million to build and can double disposal costs. “Right now we are disposing of our garbage at the Green Lane landfill for $67 a tonne,” he notes. “Garbage incineration can be upwards of $120 to $150 a tonne.”

Diversion technology would be a better use of the hefty investment required for an EFW plant, says Alfred, of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

If she had $200 million, she’d have the city build a third facility to process organics, which the province already deems a renewable energy source.
“We’re never going to not need this,” she says, noting that demand for organics processing is only going to rise as more municipalities implement green-bin programs. “It’s good energy from waste.”

Another consideration in committing to energy-from-waste is that the high costs associated with recycling could fall with improvements to product packaging and technology.

In the meantime, Alfred fears that municipalities are getting sucked in by promises of new and exciting technology that won’t solve the waste management problem.

Harnum remains skeptical.

“I don’t know if there is an amazing technological solution,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to vaporize the garbage. Hopefully we educate people so they produce less waste — that’s the best thing we can do.”