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It's interesting and important that we know how the rest of the world is
discussing our revolution.
Editors' commentary on the hot issues and topics of the Canadian
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<http://blogtn.trucknews.com/bios.html> Report from Americana 2007
Posted by Guy Crittenden <http://blogtn.trucknews.com/bios.html> at 07:24
Reflections on the Waste Management sessions of Americana 2007
By Guy Crittenden, waste analyst
The conference sessions at Americana 2007 that concerned solid waste
management, taken as a whole, suggested that the industry is in a period of
quite dramatic transition -- from a previous system in which the only value
of garbage was the collection, transportation and disposal fees charged by
waste haulers, to a new system in which waste is regarded as a valuable
resource. The new market for waste is dynamic and is being influenced by new
technologies such as those that better sort recyclable or compostable
materials from the waste stream, and thereby divert them from landfill
disposal, and those that capture the energy embodied in waste, such as
thermal treatment systems for garbage residuals, and systems to capture
methane gas at landfills to generate power.
Simply put, an industry that used to be merely a low-tech municipal service
is now going high-tech and is increasingly attracting investment from the
Opinions differ, however, as to what the value of waste really is, and from
the different presentations one could detect some important and conflicting
trends that will play themselves out in the decade to come.
For example, the audience was treated to an excellent presentation from a
technology company, Plasco, which has built a demonstration facility in
Ottawa that uses plasma arc torches to destroy waste. The company is
currently in the testing and ramp-up stage to full operation, and results
will be interesting to monitor in the summer of 2007. The value proposition
of the technology is that it uses computer systems to control the blended
feedstock of raw garbage and plastic to create just the right gaseous fuel
to drive special combustion engines. This control of the fuel - waste that
needs minimal preparation - may allow Plasco to succeed where other
plasma-based systems have failed, for technical and/or economic reasons. In
any case, the technology was one of several presented at the conference that
illustrate the leading edge of innovation in waste disposal.
Plasco also illustrates another important trend, and that is the recognition
of the BTU value - the embodied energy - in waste. This has already been
recognized by the engineers of conventional mass-burn incinerators, who
regularly refer to their systems as "waste-to-energy" and, in the best and
most efficient examples (e.g., Sweden) generate both electricity and steam.
The trick, though, has been to use technology to clean the emissions from
such systems so that they represent a reduced threat to human health and the
environment, and to use technology to garner public acceptance of such
facilities by the public in their jurisdictions.
In that regard, the presentation from David Merriman of MacViro Consultants
was interesting. Merriman led the audience on a compelling journey through
the history of waste disposal in the Greater Toronto Area, where several
important projects are under development. It was a convoluted tale, but the
gist was that Toronto and the surrounding regions are diverting as much
waste as possible through recycling and composting, and at least one area
(York Region) plans to build a large waste-to-energy plant. (There was some
discussion at the conference that perhaps conventional mass burn may be just
as effective as gasification and other higher-tech systems, at a lower
However, another set of values also informed the discussion, as was evident
from certain presentations and especially in questions from the audience.
There's an entirely different sense of "value" that many people see in waste
that doesn't view as beneficial the capture of a relatively small amount of
energy via thermal treatment. In fact, there's a school of thought that even
the most successful waste-to-energy schemes are a poor idea, because they
encourage the notion that we can continue consuming the earth's resources
and then just make our waste byproducts "go away."
Proponents of this alternative view regard any material sent for disposal as
a poorly-allocated resource. In their opinion, change needs to occur
upstream at the manufacturing and natural resource extraction stage.
Anything that can't be recycled or composted or reused, they would argue,
shouldn't be produced in the first place. An efficient and effective
municipal waste disposal system, in their view, is really a subsidy to
companies that foist their packaging and built-for-obsolescence products on
This philosophy, sometimes called the "zero waste" movement, looks at the
entire lifecycle of products and places emphasis on packaging redesign and
such things as renewable energy. A zero waste proponent would never regard a
plastic soft drink bottle burned in a waste-to-energy plant as the
appropriate consumption of "renewable" energy. Primarily due to climate
change concerns, the link between consumption and environmental impacts is
increasingly being understood by the public and policymakers, and producer
responsibility systems (rather than efficient waste disposal) are the
solution advocated by zero waste proponents.
Proper markets are needed for materials diverted from landfill (e.g., metal,
plastic and fibre, and also compostable organics). For this reason the last
panel discussion was especially interesting. Representatives from five
different municipalities across Canada presented on the different
technologies and approaches they are implementing to manage waste, and
especially to divert it from landfill. One had the sense of Canada as a vast
laboratory in which different experiments are being conducted on waste,
analogous to different steam engines being developed in England during the
industrial revolution. (Edmonton's co-composting facility and new gasifier
are a good example.)
Most importantly, each jurisdiction is struggling with the new economic
equation for waste and, to be honest, not yet fully making the connection
between the value of what is diverted from disposal and proper markets. Some
could not find markets for their source-separated organics (e.g., kitchen
scraps). Indeed, not one of them charged a user fee ("bag tag") for waste
placed at the curb, and most often the cost of garbage disposal was hidden
in municipal tax bills, among charges for other services.
It was clear that waste reduction and greater recycling and composting will
occur when cities and towns charge a visible fee - i.e., a price signal - to
waste, that rewards people for doing the "right thing" (diversion) and tolls
them for the "wrong thing" (waste).
Realistically one can conclude that the era of zero waste will only come as
the second part of a two-step process. We are half-way through the first
step - poised to soon divert as much as 60 to 70 per cent of waste from
disposal via both high-tech and low-tech recycling and composting, and then
dispose of the residuals in thermal treatment plants, anaerobic digesters or
stabilized landfills. The days of the old low-tech dump are almost over.
When that step is complete (and perhaps a bit sooner), society will be ready
to drive change up the production line to the point of the manufacturer or
brand owner, and this will prevent many materials from entering the waste
stream in the first place. Only then will we be able to say we have moved
from consumerism to sustainability.
Guy Crittenden is editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine and HazMat
Management magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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