Too Hot to Handle
Proponents of the technology argue that this newest generation of incinerators, which they prefer to call energy-from-waste (EFW) facilities, bears little resemblance to the polluting monsters of a few decades ago. Gone are the belching smokestacks, replaced with high tech scrubbers and high temperature furnaces that promise to not only rid us of those problematic garbage piles, but also to create much needed electricity.
What's interesting is that because all these supposed benefits, you'd expect that municipalities everywhere would be touting incineration as the perfect waste management solution. But they're not, and with good reason. Incineration is one of the most emotionally charged environmental issues ever put on the table for discussion. The very mention of the word - incinerator - evokes great passion and anger on both sides of the debate. The result is that most politicians still consider the issue too hot to handle.
"I don't hear any public debate on these issues. I don't hear any kind of forums or open houses ... on energy from waste," said Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller. "All I hear is: `We don't want to talk about this.'"
Well we should. And we should for reasons that aren't likely to show up on either side of the debate, so let's talk about them here. Incineration, like landfilling, is an end of the pipe solution to a problem we have been avoiding for decades. In 1988, the City of Toronto filed for an environmental assessment exemption when it first began looking for a new landfill site on the grounds that it didn't have enough time to do one. Almost two decades later, we're still looking for an easy solution to a very difficult problem.
I think it's time we grew up. As my husband Brian is very fond of saying, "A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." Well, we have failed to plan and now we're running around hoping that somebody - or more accurately something - will save us from our own excesses.
This isn't going to happen. The problem isn't what to do with our garbage. The problem is that we are the only living species on the planet that produces more waste that the natural ecosystem can reabsorb and reuse. We are apparently very smart but shortsighted little monkeys. We manage to create such diverse and interesting mounds of waste that are so repugnant and so difficult to dispose of, that like some petulant child who won't clean up her room, we refuse to deal with them.
So here we are with our backs up against the wall, once again. With time, space and options running out, incineration will increasingly be put forth as the preferred solution despite the learned opposition. The process has already started. The regions of York and Durham, and Hamilton and Niagara are already looking to site incinerators. It would appear that Gord Miller will get the debate that he's looking for, and it won't be pretty.
And that's because incineration isn't pretty, nor is it a solution to the world's waste problems - it's definitely part of the problem.
Incinerators don't eliminate waste: they simply reduce the volume, historically to 20 percent of the original volume and 10 percent of the original mass. Site an incineration in your community and be prepared to host a toxic ash dump as well. That's because when you burn garbage, it produces toxic ash. This ash ends up in one of two places: the atmosphere or in a toxic waste facility.
Thanks to improved scrubbers and filters, most of the toxins will be caught by scrubbers and filters and end up being dumped. However, what they can't eliminate are dioxins from flying up the stack. Incinerators are the largest single source of dioxin, a substance so toxic that it has no known threshold. In other words, there is no level - ever - at which dioxin is no longer considered toxic.
Incinerators are counter-productive to waste recycling and reduction initiatives, because they compete for the same materials. Despite industry claims that waste-to-energy facilities will only burn trash that can't otherwise be recovered through recycling programs, paper and plastic are the most efficient fuel, and some of the most easily recyclable materials.
Incinerators are also very hungry. In order to feed them, municipalities who choose to host one will likely end up importing garbage from other communities to keep temperatures burning high enough to ensure proper combustion and hence keep stack emissions at a minimum.
And then there's the cost. "Energy from waste is not a cheap way to produce power, it is an expensive way to get rid of garbage," said Nigel Guildford, a board member of the Ontario Waste Management Association.
Those who argue that EFWs will at least provide much needed electricity must instead consider the amount of energy that is wasted producing the products that end up in the garbage.
The solution is that we will eventually have to arrive at - sooner rather than later - is not stop producing garbage in the first place.
Read the report, A Changing Climate for Energy from Waste?, by Dr. Dominic Hogg, available at Friends of the Earth