The Future of Garbage

The Future of Garbage

By Alyssa Bigiolli

December 21, 2012

Despite claiming to have one of the best recycling programs in North America, British Columbians still produce a lot of garbage.  Recycling, composting, and trying to use less is not enough to eliminate all of the garbage produced. Unless we want to live like this, we will still have garbage at the end of the week. In most urban areas it gets picked up and taken to a landfill. Landfills are more than just an eyesore; increasing piles of waste have negative effects on the environment as they produce bacteria, leachate and greenhouse gases. They also use up large amounts of space.  Waste-to-energy facilities target the problem of landfills and, in many cases, are beneficial for the environment and energy production.

Sweden leads the world in reducing its waste.  In 2005 organics were banned from all their landfills (a move that Vancouver will be following by 2015) and they have an excellent recycling program. Sweden has created a waste-to-energy facility that is efficient to the point where they have started importing garbage from neighboring countries just to fuel it. This facility recovers the most energy per ton of waste and provides heat to 810,000 homes and electricity to 250,000 homes.  In the Swedish system garbage is taken to the plant, sorted and then burned in an incinerator at a temperature close to 1000 degrees Celsius. The furnace consists of long welded pipes where water is circulated and heated to steam by the hot gasses emitted from the burning garbage. The steam passes through a turbine to create electricity, and any remaining steam is used for district heating. While their facility does produce CO2, it is considered a better alternative to the methane that is produced from landfills.

Vancouver has started to take steps toward building a better waste management system. There is already one Waste-to-Energy Facility located in Burnaby that disposes of 20% of the region’s waste.  The energy from this plant is sold to BC Hydro and other companies and the profits go back into Metro Vancouver’s budget for waste management. While there are concerns with building more waste-to-energy in the Vancouver area, full landfills and new technologies make it an appealing idea. Cities like New Westminster, Surrey and Burnaby are vying to get one in their district. Surrey likes the idea of having the facility close to their city center so it could potentially heat and power sections of the city, and the profit from selling energy could be used to fund public transportation to further reduce air pollution.

While Europe still dominates in the waste-to-energy arena and incinerates around 50 million tons of waste each year, Asia and North America aren’t far behind.  More waste-to-energy facilities in the Vancouver area have the potential to change how we view and deal with garbage in the lower mainland, and will hopefully put us on track to follow in the footsteps of Sweden. New technologies in energy creation are appealing, but it is important to remember the basics of waste management.  Our waste management program should first encourage people to avoid creating waste, and then use strategies such as recycling and composting before resorting to waste-to-energy and disposal.

(Photos courtesy of Avfall Sverige: Swedish Waste Management)

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