Waste to Energy: Pros & Cons

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MRC Pontiac has established a working group for a project to promote our area as a site for a waste-to-
energy facility. This would appear to be an ideal project for the Pontiac. It would create jobs, reduce waste management costs, and provide a new source of energy. However, there are a few possible undesirable side effects that could result from such a facility. These must be resolved before any definite commitment is made.

Sweden has had the most notable success in the waste-to-energy projects. Their undertakings illustrate some of the issues with such a project. First is size.

A successful plant must run continuously and at very high temperatures. This requires waste from a large population – at least several hundred thousand. For MRC Pontiac, this would mean collecting the waste from the entire region of West Quebec, including Gatineau city, to keep one plant in operation. But one plant alone raises the problem of what happens to the waste or garbage if the plant is down for a prolonged period?

A second issue is “what waste is acceptable?”. Sweden has a very intense programme of recyclables and reusables. Waste is divided into several categories – metal, glass, organics, paper, plastics, etc. at source.

Only a limited class of materials make it to the incinerator. This may be contrasted with the newly operational facility for Durham-York in Ontario. This facility was designed to accept all types of waste materials (except radioactive). It has modern filters and emission controls but emits dioxins at four times the permitted level. There is a further concern. Burning certainly reduces the volume of waste. But the residue ash left behind contains concentrated levels of heavy metals (lead, zinc, etc.) that are extremely dangerous to human health. Special procedures are needed to safely handle these.

A third issue is that converting waste to energy creates carbon dioxide (CO2) the greenhouse gas that is very much an environmental concern. Roughly, the CO2 created in a waste-to-energy facility is about the same as a gas-powered plant generating the same amount of energy. Another emission from all operational waste-to-energy facilities is fine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter). These particles cause respiratory problems in humans and animals and there is no easy cure for the damage done.

One further issue is economics. Sweden’s waste-to-energy project is considered a success. But it is not cost effective. The monies from the sale of energy produced does not cover operational costs. Swedes pay a significant environmental tax to keep their systems operational. Operating the Durham-York facility is proving to be much more costly than originally anticipated. It is reasonable to assume that any facility in MRC Pontiac will also prove to be costly.

In evaluating the possibility of a waste-to-energy facility, the Pontiac working group should look at the failures as well as the successes. Germany, several cities in the USA, and other countries have had significant failures with loss of many millions of dollars on projects that did not work out. More locally, we had a project in Ottawa that initially seemed to be promising but was finally cancelled.

Waste and garbage are significant problems in the Pontiac as they are globally. However, current technologies for waste-to-energy are proving to be incomplete and expensive. The working group should examine the downside as well as the benefits. No doubt, in time solutions will be found but, in the meantime, MRC Pontiac cannot afford another failure.