Toronto needs to take a serious look at turning its hard-to-recycle trash into energy

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.

4 thoughts on “Toronto needs to take a serious look at turning its hard-to-recycle trash into energy”

  1. On energy from waste you are spot on. All one has to do is tour Sweden to see how beneficial it is and how risk-free as well. I did a tour on behalf of social housing in Ontario where 50 percent of the units are heated by electricity. I kept looking for the hidden data about the horrors of incineration only to find none. They will be off fossil fuels in short order. If you want contacts, I have them. I came away sad that Ontario is so far behind.

  2. Tyler, I’d like to see the numbers on Toronto and the GTA. How much MSW is generated? How much is recycled? How much money is generated? What MSW and hazardous waste is left over? What does it cost to maintain the landfills? Let’s do a real net benefits analysis. I have reviewed a number of technology models from pyrolysis to traditional incineration to gasification. You can attack the issue at any scaleable level you choose. Anywhere from 200 tonnes a day to 2000 tons a day. The projects already exist. The technology, science and regulatory frameworks exist. They are environmentally responsible. They have been designed to generate energy and create PROFIT while eradicating landfills. The private sector is eager to invest in utility infrastructure, which is what it really is. So what’s the problem? Perhaps the politicians need to hear the word PROFIT first? That may encourage them to stop trying to study science and do what they are elected to do…make decisions. Like, Michael Harding, I have contacts and research. Applause to Edmonton for making a decision! How did Toronto get the 407 built?

  3. I’m not sure MSW gasification is ready for prime time.

    Writing as an equipment expert I can tell you that the stability of the gasification process is key to obtain stability in the power generation system. It’s hard to stabilize the gas being produced from an ever-changing mix of MSW. Add to that the interesting deposits that form on critical parts of the system exposed to gas created from cadmium, lithium, lead, and other heavy metals that enter the MSW stream.

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