Vancouver’s Trash: The Burning Question


Photo by Marina Dodis


Past the residential dumping area, along the edge of Vancouver’s 425-hectare landfill in Delta, a narrow road runs past stands of trees and then what looks like a lake. To the east is a breathtaking view of the densely forested Burns Bog. It feels like a small national park. But turn around and there it is: everything we’ve thrown out for the last 44 years. The latest layer has been shaped into a ski hill of a slope: thousands of screaming seagulls swoop and dodge to avoid the Transformer-size bulldozers moving trash this way and that. A row of solemn eagles perch, one per pole, on the fences surrounding the top of the hill.

Everyone knows this model has to change. All that garbage, which would cover more than half of Stanley Park, arrives at a rate of 500,000 tonnes a year, and that’s only about 40 percent of what’s generated in the region. Nearly the same amount is trucked to Cache Creek.

What to do? Two visions compete for favour, visions that divide politicians and have put environmentalists at odds with each other, visions based on radically different ideas about what technology and humans are capable of. In one, we burn garbage into nothingness, a tonne of garbage reduced to a few pounds of ash, along the way producing energy to warm greenhouses or run the transportation system.

In the other, garbage also turns into nothingness, because we take every bit of it-the batteries, the chicken bones, the discarded couches, the construction debris-and separate it all out, put it in the right boxes, and ship it off to have it turned back into something useful.

Sometime in the next year, the region will have to decide. Metro planners are solidly in favour of incineration in the region, in something with substantially more capacity than the Burnaby incinerator, which handled 300,000 tonnes last year. But last July, its collective of politicians from 21 municipalities hedged their bets, asking that planners explore several options: incinerators in the region, incinerators out of the region, publicly run incinerators, privately run incinerators, drastic reductions of garbage through recycling, alternatives to all of the above. That multipronged proposal sits with the provincial government, awaiting approval. If the next environment minister rules that Victoria will allow a new incinerator, the door will be open for an all-out tussle. On one side: environmentalists, politicians, and businesses hoping to develop new waste-to-energy plants; on the other: environmentalists, politicians, and citizens who want to save us from ourselves.

John Negrin has been roaming B.C. for three years. More than 100 groups have sat as Negrin, who looks like the world’s most earnest Boy Scout leader, delivers his PowerPoint sermon. Today, it’s my turn. First, mounds of garbage spill across the screen. Then, kayakers and bears in Best Place on Earth landscapes. Finally, to the swelling of orchestral music, pristine white-walled buildings set amid mountains and fields. The buildings are trash incinerators from various places in Europe. There’s no garbage in sight.

Negrin talks steadily as the images flash by. “By taking our trash and putting it in a landfill, we’re throwing away a resource,” he says. “Plastic is really frozen petroleum. So why don’t we put it back to work?” That is, capture the energy from burning and put it to work elsewhere. Data cascades from the slides, showing the amount of energy that could be generated in the region and how much money local taxpayers would save by having an incinerator here in Metro Vancouver compared to trucking our garbage to Cache Creek for 35 years ($1.5 billion).

And repeatedly, he points out the negative impacts of landfills. Decomposing organics inside those mounds of trash produce methane gas, which landfill operators try to capture but don’t completely. That garbage also produces leachate that trickles out of the mountain. The Vancouver landfill is surrounded by a double row of ditches where the water is tested routinely for sulphides and tetrachlorophenols and about 20 other combinations from the periodic table before it’s piped off to Annacis Island for treatment.

Negrin, with degrees in economics and computer science and 20 years’ experience working on hazardous waste, heads up the recently created renewable-energy division of Aquilini Investments, the wide-ranging empire of Vancouver’s Aquilini family, who own the Canucks and Rogers Arena and many other assets. It’s one of two companies that have publicly pitched the idea of building waste-to-energy incinerators. (New Jersey-based Covento is working on a Gold River site.) Francesco Aquilini, the public face of the company co-owned by father Luigi and brothers Roberto and Paolo, says the family realized several years ago that new garbage technology was an alluring field. His father had visited Brescia, the Italian region he left for Canada 55 years ago, and the mayor insisted on showing him the relatively new incinerator that was providing heat and electrical power for more than half the local homes. He called it the best thing Brescia had ever done.

Francesco Aquilini went to Brescia himself in 2008, accompanying Negrin to plants there and in Switzerland and France. The Aquilinis are committed to developing waste-to-energy incineration projects, along with other recycling businesses. Partly, he says, because they believe in sustainability. “I drive a Prius, I have geothermal in my house, I totally recycle-this is the future and we’re putting a financial stake in it.” And partly because it’s smart business. “I saw an opportunity. The future is preserving our environment.” He says the profit from waste-to-energy incinerators is modest, but as with other utilities, steady-a comfortable five percent return on capital. “It’s win-win.” Their timing is right: alongside the mounting trash is mounting political capital. Aquilini is a dedicated supporter of the municipal government, often to be found at Vision Vancouver fundraisers, chatting in his enthusiastic, unpretentious way with anyone who walks up to him. The company has given $11,500 to the party since the last election; he personally gave $5,000 during the 2008 campaign. In recent months, he’s been a regular visitor to the mayor’s office, largely because of the company’s efforts to develop a practice rink near the stadium.

Andrea Reimer has sat politely through Negrin’s presentations, but the first-term councillor hasn’t shifted her views. Reimer, executive director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee until last year, leads the Vision council’s thinking about garbage (along with Heather Deal, a biologist who worked with the David Suzuki Foundation for years). She’ wants to keep a large incinerator from opening.

“It’s a good solution,” says Reimer, who spent an intense week last July lining up political support to block the incinerator option at Metro Vancouver. (She was successful in getting the compromise agreement to look at other options as well as the incinerator.) “And they’re aiming for the right problem. It’s just that it’s a good solution for a landfill. It’s not a good solution for consumption in general.” Publicly, Aquilini is taking the opposition philosophically, and Negrin says the company is still trying to find a way to work with Vision. The company is looking at incineration plants with no smokestacks, at smaller incinerators with a capacity of only 50,000 tonnes, and at starting up other operations to handle some of the streams of materials that could be recycled.

What Reimer and many environmentalists want is a world where the vast majority of garbage doesn’t go to a landfill or an incinerator (except for possibly a very small version of each, for the last unburnable, unrecyclable bits). She notes that if the region recovered everything, it would be substantially cheaper than spending half a billion dollars on an incinerator, and estimates that the region could easily get to 85 percent recycling within a decade. (We’re currently at 55 percent.) Simply recycling all the organic material in the region-the chicken bones and paper with food scraps that currently go into the trash-would be a big boost. San Francisco, which aggressively moved to that level five years ago, has reached 75 percent. Metro Vancouver is slowly taking action on this, with food composting about to become mandatory throughout the region.

For the average citizen trying to figure out the right choice, environmental experts aren’t going to help. Some, like UBC geography professor Ian McKendry or American anti-incinerator campaigner Paul Connett, say that incinerators, even modern ones with super-scrubbers and other technology to remove hazardous emissions, are too dangerous. Others, some prominent in the climate-change world, say they’re worth pursuing. “I don’t buy the argument that we live in this dream world where we are going to go to zero waste immediately,” says UVic professor Andrew Weaver, a climate expert who worked on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 climate assessment. Weaver makes the point that everyone thinks zero waste is an ideal goal; everyone’s in favour of recycling. (Metro planners are aiming for something close to that too, even while advocating for an incinerator.) But some people think it’s achievable in five years. Others, like him, say it will take longer. And some things will never be recyclable, or are actually better off being burned. That old sofa? Remove the metal springs, burn it, and use the heat for something useful. Old desks and chairs, same. His voice rises in exasperation as he talks, frustrated with the way the environmental movement has polarized the debate. “Environmental communities are good at mobilizing against things; they’re not very good at mobilizing for solutions. It’s all about tapping into emotions for them. They have to start supporting something.”

The debate over incineration highlights what’s becoming a prickly reality for all but the most ideologically pure: being green is hard to figure out these days. In the past, it was easy to wring hands over how wrong it all was and how much better it would be if the world were powered by alternative energy. Now that the alternatives are here, they’re proving hard to grapple with. Wind power involves giant mills planted in rural landscapes. Run-of-river energy means rerouting streams. Recycling a pop bottle into fleece isn’t really recycling, because some day that fleece will become unrecyclable garbage. To add to our problems, most of us aren’t very good at figuring out what to be really scared of. We tend to underestimate the risks of familiar dangers (driving cars, climbing on ladders, playing sports) while being disproportionately afraid of the unfamiliar but highly unlikely (lightning, terrorist attacks, plane crashes that kill everyone aboard).

One group has already weighed the risks. The Tsawwassen First Nation, down Delta way, have a tentative agreement with Aquilini to build an incinerator on their land; they believe it could help them provide energy for future developments and jobs for their members. “We had preliminary discussions at community meetings, and I was kind of surprised at the lack of concern,” says chief Kim Baird. “But I think people had high faith in the new technologies.” It’s tough to work out the right path, she acknowledges, and to move past the fear. “But there will be waste for the foreseeable future. And we have to deal with it.”