Toronto Star Pub date: October 25, 2003
Page: B1 Section: News Edition:MET Length:2796
byline: Ann Perry
Two sides of garbage incineration
Garbage disposal looms as hot issue. Some fear landfills not the answer.
When you arrive at KMS Peel Inc., the stench of raw garbage seeps into your car before you unbuckle your seatbelt. But inside Ontario's only municipal garbage incinerator, they'll tell you this is one of the cleanest trash facilities around. And just a few kilometres away, its closest neighbours barely know it's there.
For more than 10 years, Peel Region has sent much of its garbage to this plant just south of Highway 407 in Brampton, where it is burned at high temperatures and the heat converted into electricity - enough to power 6,000 houses. John Tory says that if he becomes mayor of Toronto, he'll consider building a plant like it to incinerate the mounds of waste the city now trucks to a landfill in Michigan, a projected 1 million tonnes this year alone.
It sounds tempting. Security concerns and hostile U.S. lawmakers could scupper the Michigan deal, tossing Toronto's garbage right back into our laps. The city has failed to find a new site to replace the closed Keele Valley landfill near Maple. Garbage incinerators, proponents say, are a lot cleaner than they used to be.
"The latest waste-to-energy technologies offer clean air (no harmful greenhouse gases) and a permanent solution (no lingering long-term environmental issues)," Tory says in his campaign platform.
Others don't think they're clean enough. Mayoral rivals David Miller and Barbara Hall both oppose incineration. And environmentalists who thought they had seen the last of them when they shut down Toronto's last municipal incinerator in the late 1980s are sputtering about what they see as a step back into the ecological dark ages.
"It's like taking a little bomb and saying, 'Would you mind if we leave this bomb here?'" said Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who ardently opposes incineration. "And they say, 'No, we'd rather you didn't leave this bomb here, thank you, Minister. Take this bomb and put it in your own bloody backyard,'" Connett added.
Despite competing scientific claims and political agendas, most people do agree on one thing: Public support for burning garbage goes up in smoke when an incinerator goes from a big idea to someone's backyard.
Just north of the Brampton incinerator, however, they don't know what all the fuss is about.
"I didn't even notice it was there," Paula Chute said on a recent sunny day as she shopped with her 7-month-old baby at the Avondale Shopping Centre, about 2 kilometres from the plant. "I saw the building and smoke coming out of the stack, but there's never a smell."
"When it first went in, we were upset," said William Belfer, another area resident.
Now, he said, he's "not even aware of it; there's nothing noxious. It exists and we exist."
Five days a week, garbage trucks roll off Bramalea Rd. and up a long driveway, where they wait to drive through gaping doors and dump their loads on the tipping floor. A yellow tractor claws through mounds of waste, pulling out big items such as mattresses and bicycles.
From there, a front-end loader pushes loads of trash into one of five incinerators. Gases from the burning process are moved into a second chamber and burned again. Heat generated at this stage is fed into a boiler, which creates steam that runs turbines and generates power.
Meanwhile, smoke is filtered through an air-pollution control system that cools and humidifies it, injects it with lime and carbon and removes some of the toxins.
The incinerator, which has operated since 1992 and is owned by Algonquin Power Income Fund, burns about 173,000 tonnes of garbage a year. Most of it comes from Peel, which sends two-thirds of its garbage, or about 163,000 tonnes a year, here. (Peel trucks some of the remaining garbage to a small landfill in Caledon, but takes a decidedly Toronto-like approach to the rest: It ships it to Michigan.) The rest is onboard waste from airlines flying into Pearson International Airport.
The region likes incineration so much it's considering having the plant's capacity expanded by 70,000 tonnes per year.
But burning garbage doesn't make it disappear. About 30 per cent of the waste that goes in comes out the other end as ash. That ash - about 50,000 tonnes each year - still has to be landfilled.
"There's this idea that you put the garbage in and you burn it up and it's gone," said Gord Perks, of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, which opposes incineration. "Well, the first law of thermodynamics, the most basic principle of physics, is that matter is neither created nor destroyed. So everything that goes into an incinerator has to come out, and once you have that clear, you start to think about them in a very different way from the way the proponents talk about them."
Peel is trying to find ways to use bottom ash in asphalt and in brick manufacturing, and already extracts and recycles metals from it. The rest goes to a private-sector landfill. The toxic brew the incinerator's pollution-control system filters out of the smokestack is more difficult to deal with. About 1.5 per cent of the garbage burned - about 2,600 tonnes a year - winds up as fly ash, which contains lead and cadmium and must be shipped to a hazardous-waste landfill near Sarnia. "You still have a landfill problem, except now your landfill problem is worse because you have a much more controversial material," Perks said.
Even the incinerator's manager admitted that burning garbage isn't ideal. "There is no perfect way of handling waste," said Dan Pearce.
In contrast to landfills, from which toxic material can leach unnoticed, he said, close monitoring and pollution control measures mean that Pearce knows exactly what's coming out of the incinerator.
Nathalie Henning, supervisor of waste management processing for Peel, pointed to the smokestack as she gave a tour of the Brampton plant recently. Besides a shimmer of heat coming from the top, all you can see is clear blue sky.
"That's how clean it is when it comes out of the stack," said Henning. By way of contrast, she pointed to some of the incinerator's industrial-park neighbours, which were belching long plumes of smoke.
Every year, the plant must submit to independent emissions tests. The latest available, based on samples collected in September, 2002, shows that the concentration of tested substances in its stack emissions, ranging from heavy metals to dioxins, fall below limits the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has set for the plant.
But that doesn't convince some experts that incineration is safe.
"Even the best (incinerators) do have serious releases of toxic substances into the air," said John Jackson, who teaches waste management at Trent University in Peterborough. "We're always being told that there's one operating in Brampton and we have these good regulations and new incinerators meet these regulations, but the regulations still allow you to release toxic substances, quite legally."
The plant improved its air-pollution system voluntarily as part of a recent expansion. Now, its dioxin emissions are below the federal government's reportable levels, Pearce said. But in 2001, before those improvements, the plant's air emissions included 50 kilograms of mercury and 0.24 grams of Toxic Equivalents of dioxins and furans, substances that persist and accumulate in the environment, including the human body, according to Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory.
"When you add up the quantity over a year and then you extend that to two years, to five years, to 10 years, we've added a lot to the environment," Jackson added. To be sure, the technology has improved over older models. But the debate over incineration and its offspring, which go by names like gasification and pyrolisis, doesn't really hinge on technology.
It's a political and ideological issue that pits the people who say we'll never be able to recycle, reuse or compost everything against others who insist we can - or will be able to soon.
"During the late 1980s and '90s in the city of Toronto, the dream was that you could divert everything, you could get away with 100 per cent recycling," said Richard Gilbert, a former municipal councillor and a consultant on transportation, energy and garbage issues.
"It's not like this situation had to take people by surprise, because it was evident 15 years ago. It was evident that this was the direction in which we were heading ... that when the Keele Valley site closed, we were going to have to rely on some big landfill site somewhere because we didn't have our act together, because we were dreaming. Part of that dream was an irrational rejection of incineration, or to be more precise, incineration with energy recovery."
"I'm not knocking recycling per se. I'm saying that dreams that you can recycle everything have actually contributed to the present situation where we're sending waste 400 or 500 kilometres away to a hole in the ground, and exposing other people to it and to truck fumes."
Connett has an entirely different take on it. "If you want to meet a really boring person, go and see someone who thinks incineration is the answer," he said. "I've never found one of these people with a flicker of imagination or creativity or vision. It's a myopic, engineering, Rambo approach to a social problem, and I just don't get it."
Opponents scoff at the notion that burning garbage to generate electricity constitutes an environmental victory. Far more energy is used to make packaging, for instance, than can be generated from burning it.
"It's an energy loss," Perks said. "Effectively what you're doing is expending enormous amounts of resources and energy to make highly sophisticated materials and then destroying them as quickly as you can." Another problem: If you build an incinerator, you'll have to feed it. And that undercuts waste diversion programs, say many in the zero-waste camp.
(In Peel, that argument doesn't seem to hold. Under its contract with Algonquin, Peel must ship 160,000 tonnes of waste to the incinerator each year. But it has also instituted a three-bag maximum for residential garbage pickup, and diversion into recycling and composting programs has increased from 25 per cent in 1996 to 45 per cent this year. The region is aiming for 70 per cent diversion by 2016.)
Not to mention that incineration is expensive. Toronto pays $52 per tonne to ship its garbage to Michigan. Peel pays Algonquin $76 per tonne to burn its garbage. But Peel also pays to dispose of the hazardous fly ash, bringing the total cost of incineration to about $100 per tonne.
Fundamentally, though, opponents of incineration say we're approaching waste management from the wrong end. We should be focusing on recycling, reusing and composting everything we can, they say. If something can't be dealt with in those ways, maybe it shouldn't have been made in the first place.
"We need industrial responsibility, which is to start designing their packaging and their products in such a way so they don't have to be thrown out at the end," said Connett, pointing to The Beer Store's bottle-return system. But until Toronto meets its ambitious goal to divert all its waste from landfill by 2010, what is it to do with its steaming heaps of trash?
At a recent mayoral debate hosted by the Toronto Environmental Alliance, John Tory took Barbara Hall to task for opposing all of the methods proposed: burying garbage at the abandoned Adams Mine in Northern Ontario; building an incinerator; and the city's current arrangement in Michigan.
"What is your plan?" he asked Hall. "If you're not going to put it under your bed, where are you going to put it?"
"Well, where are you going to put your incinerator?" Hall shot back. "Under your bed?"
"Does Scarborough get a choice? Does Leaside get a choice? Does Rosedale get a choice? Of course, Rosedale gets a choice," added Miller.
If elected, Tory won't be able to put an incinerator anywhere for a while. The city's contract with Republic Services to ship garbage to Michigan prohibits it from building an incinerator or a new landfill.
But the contract can be reopened at the end of 2005, said Angelos Bacopoulos, general manager of solid waste management services for Toronto.
An incinerator would also need approval from the Ministry of the Environment. Newly sworn-in Minister Leona Dombrowsky said this week, "I think that incineration is a dangerous option at this point in time."
But city waste-management staff want a local way to deal with Toronto's garbage.
"Our biggest problem is trying to get the waste to Michigan. It's just a nightmare," Bacopoulos said.
"As much as it would create a lot of work for us, if there were solutions for our waste management in and around the GTA, that, to us, would lessen that burden - as much as it would probably be very difficult to site any sort of facility, whether it be a landfill, incinerator, a processing facility." Environmental activists are gearing up for a fight.
"I think it would be a tragedy for Toronto," said Karen Buck, who heads Citizens For A Safe Environment, which helped close the Commissioners St. incinerator in 1988. Perks, a veteran of several incinerator fights, is exasperated it's on the agenda again.
"These things are enormously unpopular when they try to find a site, and it will literally tear the community apart. It will become the one thing that dominates the debate at city hall. It will use up all of our time and resources and energy as a municipal government and a civic structure, trying to figure out what to do with this damn thing, and in the end they won't build it," he said.
"Frankly, I'm a little resentful that I now have to waste two more years of my life doing this. And they won't build it, I know they won't. They will not be able to find a site."