The Energy From Waste debate needs to be had

The Energy From Waste debate needs to be had

As cities grow and demands on our time increase, invariably, we opt for convenience when available. This applies to waste and usually means an increase in single use disposable items such as prepared food containers, packaged chemical cleaning solutions and other such functional products. Most of our materials can’t be recycled and a great deal ends up in the great Pacific garbage patch as shipping containers fall off ships with our plastic “recycling” bound for China. Many countries in the world have already led the way with recovering energy from waste. This however doesn’t come without its critics since there will be an inevitable increase in local emissions.

Why Should I Care? assembled a panel to discuss the pros and cons of treating our garbage as an energy source within the city. Enwave’s CEO Dennis Fotinos, Kathleen Reil, former member of Toronto’s Waste Division Committee, and Rob McLeese, Director of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario joined us at the Rose and Crown on April 1, 2015.


Riel kicked things off by explaining that there are two types of solid waste we have to deal with: residual (dry) and organic (wet). We have a landfill crisis. Municipalities don’t have space within their boundaries and so they export waste. In Europe, waste isn’t taken to a landfill unless it’s already been “treated”. In other words, incinerated to reduce mass and break it down to ash.  From her point of view, energy from waste isn’t just about generating energy; it’s about dealing with a waste crisis we have yet to come to terms with. She explained that there are no perfect solutions to waste disposal.


McLeese started by sharing that 20 years ago, energy production from waste was considered bad in American politics but now it’s in high demand south of the border. “Incineration” is still a four-letter word but as new technology emerges minds can be changed.


Fotinos explained that Toronto District Heating was originally incorporated to burn refuse for heating local buildings. He cited Richard Gilbert and Jack Layton among visionaries in the 1980s who advocated for deep lake water cooling for natural air conditioning. 25 million square feet of Toronto are cooled from Lake Ontario, but now that our country is rich with fuel we’re complacent toward new solutions. As a former city councillor, Fotinos explained that Toronto council hasn’t had a proper debate about the pros and the cons about energy from waste. He hopes they will at least have the debate.


A commenter asked why Enwave isn’t leading the debate, and Fotinos explained that Enwave would love to produce energy from garbage, but the city isn’t giving them the raw materials. Without a stable supply chain, it is not feasible to build any such facilities.


Another guest asked  how we can justify new landfills or waste generation plants vs education on recycling given the cost?  There is also a fear that energy from waste discourages recycling since it needs a constant input of waste. Fotinos cited, Europe which does recycling much better than Canada does and still diverts waste to energy. The burden is more on the producers than consumers. Reil added that there’s a lot of room within our recycling programs to divert more waste.


As the discussion continued, all members of the panel stressed that it’s not either/or, but that Toronto needs a mix of solar, wind, energy from waste, and other sources.  There are many cities around the world with a combination of many energy inputs including waste.


Asked what the opposition is to incineration, Riel explained that incineration will always produce both fly ash and bottom ash and there’s a debate that bottom ash is more contaminating to landfills.  There are also concerns about atmospheric emissions from the incineration process itself.  McLeese added that people have a dated vision of smokestacks, but new technology will have almost 0 opacity and the emissions would be controlled. Fotinos ceded incineration isn’t perfect, but, to quote Churchill, “show me another system that’s better and we’ll implement it.” Dozens of jurisdictions in Europe have got the mix right, and Enwave wants to replicate it right here in Toronto.


The overall sentiment was that we should consider waste as a resource, energy from waste as a way to manage our waste crisis, and that a mix of waste processing is the way to move forward. Reil stressed that we should be thinking of dealing with waste first and energy as a side issue while Fotinos just wants to see the debate take place in the public and political realm.  Thank you to our panellists and participants!


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