Municipal Solid Waste - Gold in the garbage!

Vancouver, Canada – With Canadians disposing of over 25 million tonnes of waste to landfills each year, many municipalities are handing over money to companies that specialize in turning municipal solid waste (MSW) into energy. Through ingenuity, many waste-to-energy technologies have been developed for this waste and it has become an industry that is growing annually and shows no signs of slowing down.

Waste-to-energy is the use of solid waste as an energy source and municipalities are willing to pay companies big money for it. Edmonton, Alberta, which was facing a potential waste crisis, is spending more than $100 million on a waste-to-energy plant to be completed in 2010. The facility will utilize gasification technology which breaks down organics into carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) gas while adding oxygen at high temperatures for combustion. The process is considered a fairly clean burning energy source.

Commonly, methane gas (CH4), which is produced when organic matter decays, is used as an energy option directly from the landfill. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, 70% of all wastes generate CH4 which, as a greenhouse gas, is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Toronto, which receives $2.5 million dollars a year from its landfill gas energy projects, is now capturing this gas (thus removing it from the atmosphere) and burning it for energy.

Each year Toronto sends over 750,000 tonnes of its municipal waste to Michigan. According to a 2007 report to the United States congress, by 2010 the States will no longer accept municipally regulated waste from Canada.

As a whole, Canadian municipalities export over 4 million tonnes of municipal waste to the United States annually. With nowhere to put this waste in 2010, Toronto and other municipalities may have to become more receptive and open to waste-to-energy technologies, including incinerators. In doing so, these cities maybe be able to avert a waste management crisis, and produce revenue, energy and jobs for many people.

Incinerators are usually used to dispose of medical or biological waste and can reduce waste volume by up to 95%. Incinerators are typically frowned upon due to potential health and emission risks but this negative view is based on old technology. Recent studies have shown incinerators to burn cleaner than coal plants as most of the emissions are now filtered. An incinerator can generate 0.67 Mega Watts (MW) of electricity per tonne of waste.

Several Ontario municipalities, such as York Region, Durham Region and Halton are turning to incinerators for waste disposal while it is being considered for use by the Niagara Region and Hamilton.

However, the business of solid waste is not limited to converting waste to energy. Greg McDonald, the National Coordinator of Waste Reduction Week in Canada says the “public and political debates of late have focused on where to put our waste rather than how we can work to eliminate it.” In other words, he means becoming a zero waste society through reuse and recycling.

The Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELP) agrees with this position and released a report earlier in 2007 stating that Ontario needs a comprehensive waste management policy that places waste reduction over waste disposal. The CIELP report suggests that relying on waste disposal technologies such as incinerators, may have a negative impact on the environment, alleviating the desire for more environmentally friendly alternatives like waste diversion.

The CIELP stresses that incinerators and similar technology should be low in the hierarchy of a waste management plan.

Even with current levels of awareness and recycling programs, Canadians are only diverting approximately 24% of all municipal solid waste away from the landfill each year for recycling. The typical municipal solid waste stream consists of 34% paper, 11.8% plastic, 7.6% metals and 5.2% glass, all of which are commonly recycled materials.

In Ottawa alone, $1 million worth of recyclables were sent to the landfill in 2005. This leaves a lot of precious waste available for salvaging with business and municipalities taking advantage of it.

For example, Norcal Waste Systems, the trash hauler for San Francisco (which boasts a 68% diversion rate), operates a facility which separates recyclables out of the waste stream. As recycling has become a $238 billion business in the United States, this process of salvaging has become very valuable. A second Norcal facility composts food and yard waste and sells the final product for $10 per cubic yard.

With waste reduction in mind, Owen Sound, a municipality of Ontario, has drafted a long term waste management plan for environmental sustainability. As part of the plan, the city is hoping to stimulate environmental economic development “through attracting green industry and business to the city.” This would include businesses to establishing recycling facilities for many types of waste generated within the city.

Victoria B.C.’s Dockside Green Project offers great opportunities for waste management enterprises. An amalgam of the initiatives put forth in Edmonton and Owen Sound, Dockside Green is attempting to generate an environmentally sustainable community of 2,500 people which is also greenhouse gas emission neutral.

Europe is leading the way with sustainable living initiatives and policy for an entire continent. In May of 2007 European ministers signed the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities which calls for European cities to follow a similar structure to Dockside Green. As Nicky Gavron, Vice-Mayor of London, England, stated, “The new paradigm in terms of renewable in cities is waste.” In other words, there is global demand for energy-to-waste and waste reduction companies innovations.

With the United States soon to close its doors to Canadian municipal wastes and over 10,000 landfills in Canada with limited capacity, cities like Edmonton, Ottawa and Victoria are investing more money in new technologies and companies for waste reduction. As a result, the business of waste is burgeoning. With waste management and remediation services earning over $4.8 billion in revenue in 2004 (a $1.1 billion growth over 2002), there is a lot of money in garbage.

For More Information: WRW Canada

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