My Clean Break column today in the Toronto Star talks about why the city, which under previous Mayor David Miller practically banned discussion of energy-from-waste, should open its mind and have an honest dialogue about options for turning the city’s hard-to-recycle solid waste into useful products, such as electricity, ethanol or green chemicals.
They’re doing it in Edmonton with Enerkem, which is turning sorted municipal solid waste into ethanol. They’re doing it in Ottawa with Plasco Energy, which is turning residual municipal waste into syngas that’s used for generating electricity. Trash giant Waste Management, an investor in Enerkem, has been investing heavily in technologies that can cleanly convert waste into useful chemicals and fuels in a safe way that releases virtually no emissions into the atmosphere — at least not, obviously, until any end fuel product is burned. But this fuel product would be displacing a fossil fuel using materials that might otherwise degrade in a landfill and release methane or contaminate groundwater.
This is an area where I part with many of my friends in the environmental community, and believe me, I’ve had my share of debates over a beer. But the landfill option is not better, in my view, and while I fully support waste diversion programs I don’t believe we can ever get to 100 per cent diversion. There’s a lot of wood waste, clothing, unrecyclable plastics, and even certain paper and plastic products can only be recycled so many times. What happens with this garbage? Advanced energy-from-waste technologies, like those being built by Enerkem and Plasco, can help municipalities manage their waste in their own back yard and get a source of energy in return.
I’m not saying we should drink the Kool-Aid, no questions asked. But at the same time, I’m a believer that the technology has changed over the years, the economics have improved, and some systems being piloted and built for commercial use today are dramatically different than the dirty incinerators built in the 1970s. Skepticism is fine, and encouraged, but not when it’s accompanied by outright dismissal or repeated attempts to compare today’s technology with what stirred up controversy 20 years ago.
It’s a conversation Toronto needs to have.