Burn After Reading
Garbage incineration may not sound pretty, but it’s gotten a lot cleaner, and may be our best bet for combatting a growing municipal waste problem
From the top of Amagerforbrænding, the largest of three garbage incineration plants located in downtown Copenhagen, is an idyllic panorama of the waterfront. A newly constructed opera house, donated by shipping magnate Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, casts a shadow over the water several kilometres away. A new island, built by the municipality and covered with imported sand to act as a beachfront during the summer, is within walking distance. The plant has been embraced by the general public, with nearby residents so accustomed to it that the city council is currently considering a proposal for retrofitting the facility to include a fully functioning ski hill on top.
In Denmark, the burning of waste has been an accepted practice for over 40 years. Jan Gehl, a well-known Danish urban design architect, believes that this originally stemmed from space constraints in a country 38 times more densely populated than Canada. “We’ve never had the luxuries that North Americans enjoy, where you can easily find an inexpensive location for large-scale garbage disposal out of sight and out of mind. In the 1970s, we simply ran out of room, and this was our only option.”
But the Danes quickly realized the combustion of waste had other benefits, such as the production of electricity and heat. Incineration now falls more broadly into the waste-to-energy category. Countries such as Denmark and Japan have located their incinerators in urban centres so that the steam can be used to power or heat nearby homes.
Even as incineration facilities have proliferated throughout Europe and Asia over the past several decades, North America has been reluctant to embrace them. No new incinerators have been built in Canada or the United States for the past 15 years, due to well-organized public opposition. According to the Canadian Energy-from-Waste Coalition, only eight facilities exist in Canada, processing 3 per cent of the country’s municipal solid waste. Denmark, a country of just 5.5 million people, diverts 54 per cent of its waste to 29 incineration plants, many of them using the most advanced technologies on the market.
With Canada’s municipal waste volumes rising steadily on a per capita basis since 1980, there has been a growing need to find alternative waste disposal methods. Local opponents to new landfills, who express strong concern about soil and water contamination, have effectively convinced municipalities over the past decade to continue operating existing facilities that are rapidly filling up. To meet existing demand, Ontario alone maintains 32 large landfill sites, along with 958 smaller ones. Over 2,000 sites have been retired over the past century, according to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.
As Canada struggles to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, leading sources of methane expulsion have faced greater scrutiny. Environment Canada reported that Canadian landfills in 2010 accounted for 20 per cent of national methane emissions. This is one area where utilities and private companies have been active in waste-to-energy, by setting up systems to capture and combust methane emitted from the breakdown of organic materials. The introduction of methane capture technology at 42 disposal sites in Canada has resulted in 25 per cent of methane emissions being transformed into energy. Methane capture systems have grown in popularity in Canada over the past decade compared to garbage incineration plants. They are less expensive to install, face muted community opposition and have received federal tax incentives and funding from pools of money, such as the Green Infrastructure Fund.
So is it better to burn or bury waste for clean electricity generation? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analyzed this question in a comprehensive life-cycle report published in conjunction with North Carolina State University in 2009. They determined that, if paired with a high diversion rate, the newest incineration technologies generate significantly more energy, while reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions and habitat loss that come from traditional landfills.