Still time to halt Burnaby’s waste incinerator heating project, advocate says
Metro Vancouver's waste incinerator in Burnaby has its first client lined up for its heat distribution system—Vancouver's River District—starting in 2025
Metro Vancouver has announced its first customer to buy heat from Burnaby’s waste incinerator, but one advocate says it’s not too late to change course.
Last week, the regional district announced Vancouver’s River District—a development near that city’s border with Burnaby, along the Fraser River—would begin buying heat from the incinerator in the next few years.
The agreement would see the River District buy up to 10 megawatts of heat from the waste-to-heat facility starting in 2025.
Project design is expected to begin early this year, starting with an energy centre next to the incinerator, along with a pipe system to deliver hot water to the River District. Starting in 2023, the regional district intends to build an energy centre in the River District to receive the heat.
Overall, the project is slated to cost $55 million.
“Metro Vancouver is committed to becoming a carbon neutral region by 2050. Optimizing the use of energy from the Waste-to-Energy Facility will allow us to reduce our carbon footprint while providing a sustainable heat source for homes and businesses,” said Jack Froese, chair of Metro Vancouver’s zero waste committee, in a news release.
“The greenhouse gas reduction resulting from the Waste-to-Energy Facility district energy system will contribute tremendously to helping us achieve our environmental targets.”
‘A terrible idea’
But Sue Maxwell, who sits on the board of Zero Waste BC and who co-authored a report on achieving zero waste in the province, said going ahead with the project was “a terrible idea.”
In fact, her report, titled A Zero Waste Agenda for BC, calls for phasing out waste incineration altogether “and closing other loopholes for waste disposal.”
And she said making it more efficient by also capturing excess heat energy from the facility isn’t necessarily a benefit.
“Once you lock into a system where now you’ll have a bunch of houses that are dependent on the incinerator for heating, what we have seen in other jurisdictions is that they’ve ended up importing waste,” Maxwell said.
“You need to keep on feeding the incinerator. So other jurisdictions have ended up importing waste in order to keep it going, or they have kind of slacked off on their waste reduction efforts, because they actually want the waste.”
Hawaii and Florida, she said, have had instances of cancelling recycling programs to provide enough material for their incinerators.
Incinerator still burns oil-based products
What’s more, she said science doesn’t back waste incineration as a lower-emission energy source.
“The incinerator produces more greenhouse gases per tonne [of waste]—more than double—than a landfill,” Maxwell said.
“So if we’re also worried about the emissions of things, then we really need to stop burning materials. We need to start conserving materials as much as possible and then handling them in a really responsible fashion.”
According to the Zero Waste Agenda report, co-authored with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the incinerator produced 288,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions. Of that, 40% came from fossil-fuel-derived products, like plastics, textiles, and rubber.
The remaining 60% came from biomass and organic materials, including wood and compost.
Maxwell pointed to one study—which hasn’t been peer reviewed and which was authored by an employee of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives—that found incinerators produce up to 1.7 times more greenhouse-gas emissions than even coal. And natural gas, the energy source the incinerator is expected to replace, produces less than a quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by incinerators, according to the study.
Another study, conducted in the UK by Eunomia and commissioned by environmental group ClientEarth, found incineration there was less carbon-intensive than coal but still more so than gas power plants, even when combining heat and electricity production.
A major difference between the studies is that the first one includes biogenic CO2 emissions (that is, emissions from burning organic materials) and emissions from fossil-fuel-based products like plastics, while the second omits biogenic emissions.
The international standard, set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is to discount biogenic emissions, as they offset methane production from putting organic waste in a landfill.
Expenses down the line
Maxwell also noted the age of the facility, now closing on 35 years. She said incinerators in the US have on average closed at around this point in their lifecycle.
“That’s partly because they become very, very expensive to maintain,” she said. “It’s millions and millions of dollars that could be going to waste reduction instead.”
She pointed to past budgets for limiting nitrous oxides ($15 million) compared to the annual budget for zero-waste strategies ($2 million).
“Even if there was not a single emission from the incinerator, and it was generating bucket-loads of money, we’re burning resources we don’t have,” she said.
“We’re over-consuming the natural resources of the earth at a pace that it is not able to replenish.”
That means we need to invest more in reducing waste in the first place, Maxwell said.
“We can’t just be using coffee cups for two seconds and then throwing them away. We can’t be burning all of these materials. We need to cycle the nutrients back into the soil for the organics,” she said.
“And for the sort of technical nutrients, things like metal and glass and plastic, we need to be using them for as long as possible and scaling back on our degree of consumption in the first place.”