Come Full Circle? Is North American Resource Recovery Viable Without EfW?

The announcement earlier this year by the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment granting a waste-based ethanol the lowest the carbon intensity value ever issued a transportation fuel in that province properly raises questions as to where energy-from-waste (EfW) now stands in the coming age of resource recovery / lifecycle circularity in North America.  The answer isn’t entirely clear.

Haven’t the Europeans Already Figured This Out?

North Americans will do well to recognize the origins of our formulations of a Circular Economy – the European Union, from its landmark “Closing the Loop” commitment, to their ongoing expansion of regulated product waste, to their coming Plastics Roadmap implementation.

All of these initiatives are borne of regulatory and operational capacity to incorporate EfW as a backstop strategy to address waste which cannot be managed through “higher order” environmental processes.   It is doubtful whether the ambitious resource recovery policies now advocated by the European Union would have taken the same form without EfW.  (In fact, many eastern EU members make this very argument in resisting the full scope of the policy).

So What’s the Problem with EfW?

Once we recognize that EfW processes involve environmental technologies long evolved from the bad old days of outdoor garbage burning, there are some useful myths worth examining in light of the demonstrated experience in the EU:

EfW Not Compatible With Recycling?

There is a commonly shared resource recovery hierarchy placing EfW as only one stage above landfilling and certainly to be preempted by the three “R”s.   More importantly, there is no evidence that higher levels of EfW mean lesser recycling – in fact, the opposite correlation exists.

Zero Waste Without EfW?

There isn’t a serious argument today that “zero waste” policies are anything other than aspirational.  Further, it is equally clear that source-separated rejects and residuals within municipal solid waste (MSW) will continue represent a significant quantity of landfill material in the absence of EfW.

Post-Separated MSW Isn’t Fit for EfW?

The argument is essentially that, with high diversion, the feedstock waste would be organics and other high moisture content with no BTUs.   In fact, the French Energy and Environment Agency found that residual waste had a higher caloric value than pre-sorted MSW.

EfW Plants Threaten Health?

The health concern typically relates to dates incineration technology releasing airborne dioxins and furans, but this ignores the substantial innovation in curbing emissions that has come through years of experience under ever-tightening EU environmental standards.  The European Environmental Agency described incineration emissions from incineration, in 2012, as “negligible” in comparison to other waste activities.

MSW Not Renewable Fuel Source?

Even with dedicated organic source separation, the composition of MSW can still be more than 50% biodegradable material – assuming this remains an important distinction in a post-landfilling era.  Of course, some EfW technologies like anaerobic digestion are not even drawn into this debate.

Isn’t a BC Low Carbon Intensity Value the Gold Standard?

All of which brings us back to the MSW-to-ethanol plant granted a stellar low carbon lifecycle assessment by British Columbia, the same standard that Canada’s federal government has repeatedly held out as the model for a coming federal Clean Fuel Standard, forming part of the broader Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.

Surely, we can’t be incentivizing EfW for fuels and actively discouraging it as a substitute for landfilling.   Maybe it’s time to revisit EfW as a (small) part of our coming Circular Economy.

Jonathan D. Cocker heads the Firm’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of firm Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environment, health and safety matters, including product content, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, extended producer responsibilities and contaminated lands matters. He appears before both EHS tribunals and civil courts across Canada. Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on EHS matters, an active participant on EHS issues in a number of national and international industry associations and the recent author of the first edition of The Environment and Climate Change Law Review (Canada chapter) and the upcoming Encyclopedia of Environmental Law (Chemicals chapter).