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Burnaby incinerator facility should be phased out, says report advocating for zero waste

A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office (CCPA) and Zero Waste BC recommends the province phase out incineration if it wants to reduce emissions—including at Metro Vancouver’s Waste-To-Energy facility in Burnaby.

Metro Vancouver says the incinerator, located south of Marine Way by the Fraser River, turns waste into enough electricity to power about 16,000 homes a year. It handles about 260,000 tonnes of garbage a year—around a quarter of all garbage from the region.

The report from the CCPA, however, notes that emissions from the facility totalled 288,000 tonnes CO2e in 2018—about 40% of which came from fossil-fuel-derived products like plastics and rubber, with the remaining 60% coming from biomass and organic materials like wood and compost.

Emissions from the incinerator

“Metro Vancouver’s incinerator was BC’s 24th largest single-facility source of [greenhouse gases] in 2018,” the report says.

“Incineration has appeal because it gives the perception of making waste disappear, and can produce heat and electricity for other economic uses. This view is deceptive: incineration may well destroy recognizable items, but not their material basis.”

The report says that waste still leaves the facility in the form of ash, gas, heavy metals, or toxic compounds created through burning—and it says those forms of waste disproportionately create health impacts for  lower-income or visible minority households who are more likely to live nearby.

And it calls the incinerator’s results in terms of solid waste management “disappointing”—pointing to a 2019 report from Metro Vancouver that about 16-20% of the original tonnage of waste in the Burnaby incinerator becomes residue that then goes to landfill anyway.

Metro Vancouver says the facility, which has been operating since 1988, “has performed considerably better than the required regulatory emissions standards.”

It provides monthly emissions reports to the Ministry of Environment, the City of Burnaby, and Fraser Health, which it says consistently show “extremely low levels of air emissions.”

It also has an eddy current separator and a magnetic separator that separate non-ferrous metals like copper and aluminum from bottom ash, so they can be sold to a company that produces reinforcing steel—creating about $300,000 in revenue each year.

Zero waste

The report recommends that BC aim to move to a “zero waste model” by 2040.

“The challenge of our times is not to recycle a little more, but to fundamentally redesign systems to reduce the amount of waste that is created in the first place,” said co-author Marc Lee of the CCPA.

Along with proposing that incineration be phased out, the report also recommends bans on single-use packaging, tougher regulations on recycling and compost collection, and new regulatory frameworks on plastics and waste from construction and demolition.

While it notes that zero waste is “perhaps more of an aspirational than an operational goal”, the report says policymakers should focus more on shifting the responsibility of redesign and reuse upstream, rather than downstream to post-consumer practices like recycling and waste collection.