Vancouver out-gunned in fight against waste-to-energy incinerator but refusing to give up. Fourth in a three-month series.

Back to the future solution of incineration 

When Vancouver city councillor and Metro Vancouver board member Andrea Reimer attended her first Metro Van director’s meeting in early 2009, she says it was like stepping back into time. 

“The former chair of Metro Vancouver, Lois Jackson ... I was born the year when she was first elected,” says Reimer. “It gives you an idea of the generational gap. I've had a lifetime for the time they have been in politics.”

That philosophical gulf became apparent as Reimer and her six Vancouver colleagues on the 40 member board encountered a comprehensive garbage proposal that looked like it was designed for the 1970’s.

The Cache Creek landfill was nearing the end of its life and the Metro Van board had an opportunity to forge a new greener, solid-waste path.  But Reimer says no one seemed to have a clear idea of the actual amount of waste being generated in the region. There was no recycling target in the proposed plan, no bans on certain materials, no specific dates for diversion and a strategy that relied on the mass-burning of garbage.

“For whatever reason, by the time I was elected in December 2008 and joined the Board, people were 100 per cent bought in to this miracle of waste-to-energy. It was this magic thing that was going to convert garbage to climate busting gold. It was going to solve the climate problem.”

“If your whole world was mass-bury, this (incineration) probably does seem quite innovative. But if you’re in a space where incinerators seem like an old idea, they seem like we’re going backwards,” says Reimer in an interview with The Vancouver Observer.

Reimer says her goal when it comes to the growing waste stream is to find new ways to divert or reduce waste at the source.  But if an incinerator is built, those efforts could be in vain and the path to a greener future would be jeopardized.

“We very, very strongly believe that if a mass burn incinerator is built, you can forget future diversion and reduction targets,” says Reimer. “The absolute and inevitable end game is that you get to a point where you (decide) do we burn it for money and power or do we reduce it and recycle it?”

“We have a ton of companies here that are world leaders in terms of innovation. But the minute that cheque gets signed on that mass burn incinerator, it’s all up in smoke. The possibility of those kinds of investments completely disappear.”

Reimer and Vancouver’s Vision councillors continue to be in a different space than the Metro Van board over its regional solid waste strategy which was eventually approved in 2010. The plan includes a new $480 million waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator that can handle up to 700,000 tonnes of the region’s future waste and will be in addition to the existing WTE plant operating in Burnaby for the past 25 years.  So far, 10 proponents have submitted proposals. That plan is opposed by the Vancouver directors on the board, waste haulers in the region, the Fraser Valley Regional District and environmentalists.

Under the Integrated Solid Waste and Resource Management Plan, Metro Van is pushing forward with aggressive waste-diversion targets. The goal is to divert as much as 80 per cent of the region’s waste by 2020, but the unusable residue left over at the end will be destined for an incinerator. And according to Metro Van, burning that residue to make energy is “the best solution for handling garbage remaining after all efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle.” 

Reimer isn't buying it. But she and her Vancouver colleagues are outvoted on a board that she says seems to be stuck on old ideas and is difficult to budge.

“I really think you are watching the same battle as the car versus alternative forms of transportation,” says Reimer. “It’s the same battle. We haven’t yet gained enough votes to stop it from happening. I've definitely seen some movement. People are worried about the finances and cost ... which I suspect will be significantly higher since it was put in the plan five years ago.”

Reimer’s philosophical differences spring from her background with the Green Party and almost 20 years with BC’s Wilderness Committee, nine of which she served as executive director. Her green credentials fit with the Vancouver Vision Party’s vision of creating the greenest city on the planet by 2020. That civic view has been under attack lately as the city faces the possibility of more oil tankers in the harbour from a proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, more coal shipments and now an incinerator proposed for the region’s garbage.

Last October, Metro Van passed By-law 280. The regulation, which is yet to be approved by Victoria, ensures control over the waste-flow in the region, and helps to support recycling and reuse programs. Currently some of the region’s garbage is being trucked to Abbotsford where dumping fees are lower. Critics charge that By-law 280 is designed to guarantee a steady stream of trash to feed a waste-to-energy facility, and that the by-law threatens to thwart private industry plans to exploit a public resource. Reimer says that may be true, but the by-law also does much more.

“It also controls feedstock for the guy I'm hoping sets up the bio-gas plant, or the this (plant), or the that. It doesn't just advantage large technology. It is also quite critical for small technologies. You are enabling a feedstock for a local company that might have a good technology to do recovery with. So, what we decided was that we would support flow control but only if there was a provision for material recovery.”

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

The Vancouver councillors take credit for forcing Metro Van to allow material recovery facilities (MRF). The MRF is a combination of modern robotic technology and common sense: machines and human workers pick through soiled paper, plastics and metals from Metro Vancouver’s garbage waste-stream and recover valuable materials that normally would be buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator.

“Critically important is that in material recovery (facilities), even if it only gets five or 10% per cent recovery, and every indication is that it will get significantly more than that, it would put another nail in the coffin of a mass burn incineration,” says Reimer.  “So why wouldn't we want to enable that.”

Out-voted on the board, Reimer says the Vancouver councillors are still working hard to make changes. Coquitlam has embraced a new MRF and is asking tough questions about a new incinerator. Veteran Richmond councillor Harold Steves is also concerned about an incinerator. Reimer says the battle is not over yet.

“It feels like we’ve been literally scaling a greased wall through this whole process. Just every possible ‘odd’ is against us but somehow we’ve made progress.”