Sound policy, not technology, should determine Ontario's waste management options
The growing push for incineration of Ontario's solid waste-given even more impetus by favourable remarks from Premier Dalton McGuinty-has prompted the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP) to renew its call for a comprehensive provincial waste management strategy.
A new report from CIELAP, titled Ontario's Waste Management Challenge - Is Incineration an Option?, emphasizes waste reduction and diversion, while calling on the provincial government to fund an independent assessment of incineration technologies to better understand the true costs and benefits of incineration before their implementation.
Even if incineration is determined to be safe enough for expanded use in Ontario, says the report, it should be used only for truly residual materials and as an option, should be part of a waste hierarchy in which waste prevention/reduction and diversion rank highest.
Moreover, says CIELAP, the decision as to whether incineration is an appropriate technology for Ontario should be made only after an overarching waste management policy is put in place. "Waste management must be led by policy, not technology," the report states.
"We're at an important crossroad in the energy-from-waste debate in Ontario," said CIELAP executive director Anne Mitchell. "This research makes an important contribution by exploring where incineration might fit into an environmentally sustainable waste management strategy."
The report, by CIELAP's research director Maureen Carter-Whitney, reviews the background and context for the incineration debate in Ontario, as well as current and proposed regulations governing municipal solid waste (MSW) and hazardous waste.
It outlines the advantages and disadvantages of incineration technologies, examines the European experience with incineration and discusses the place of incineration within a waste management hierarchy. The report concludes with 11 recommendations. Although the report's focus is on MSW and hazardous waste rather than to management of industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) waste or hospital waste, its recommendations concerning the need for a comprehensive provincial waste management policy would also apply to management of the latter types.
Decisions by a number of local governments to consider incineration as a waste management option, as well as with the Ministry of Environment's decision to use pilot projects to test new incineration technologies, have been made in the absence of strong policy leadership from the provincial government, says the report. This in turn presents the risk that waste management decisions may be made reactively, on a patchwork basis, with no underlying long-term, sustainable vision. And even though there are laws, regulations and policies governing aspects of MSW and hazardous waste management, Ontario still has not developed a comprehensive waste management strategy that would ensure maximum waste diversion throughout the province, CIELAP continues.
The lack of a policy that would give waste prevention, reduction and diversion top priority is the basis of much opposition to incineration: opponents are concerned that opening the door to incineration will remove any incentive by authorities to encourage reduction or diversion. The report highlights the fact that European countries that have been using incineration technologies for many years have done so in the context of strong policy frameworks that give clear priority to waste prevention and reduction. The European Community has also mandated measures such as extended producer responsibility and stringent packaging regulations.
Accordingly, CIELAP makes the following key recommendations. The Ontario government, it says, should:
establish a strong, effective, comprehensive provincial waste management strategy that includes enforceable reduction targets and deadlines and that develops regulations and co-ordinated regional approaches to using the best available technology for dealing with residuals.
apply life cycle analysis methods to its consideration of the environmental, economic and social costs associated with the various methods of managing waste.
evaluate incineration technology primarily on the basis of whether or not it is an appropriate means of waste disposal, rather than as a means of producing energy.
fund an independent, fair and impartial scientific assessment of the risks and benefits of incineration technologies and provide this information to the public.
develop and implement strict packaging regulations to prevent and reduce unnecessary packaging.
introduce strong policies and regulations on extended producer responsibility requiring industry to manage its waste itself. It should strengthen the powers of Waste Diversion Ontario through amendments to the Waste Diversion Act to increase the role of industry stewardship in reducing and recycling waste.
"Without an adequate diversion policy, we are merely turning to a quick fix," said report author Carter-Whitney. "Communities have a range of options to reduce and divert waste which ought to be explored and improved before investing in a technology that is controversial and may not even be necessary," she added.
The report may be viewed on CIELAP's Web site, www.cielap.org.
Industry support for alternatives to incineration was expressed by Tony Busseri, president and CEO of Environmental Management Solutions (EMS), a leading Canadian composting company. He said Premier McGuinty's comments supporting incineration of the province's waste is based on poor science and takes Ontario in the wrong direction.
"The fact is that there is no technology that can incinerate waste without producing greenhouse gas emissions," Busseri said. He added that the province is better served by more government support for a range of waste management solutions, such as reduction, recycling and more environmentally sound approaches to divert waste from landfills and incinerators.
As a composting company treating more than a million metric tons of organic waste every year, Busseri acknowledged that EMS has a clear interest in seeing policies that encourage composting. "But so does every resident of Ontario who wants a cleaner environment and fewer tax dollars being spent on waste management," he stated.
"There is no single "magic bullet" for Ontario's waste management crisis. Certainly, it is not greenhouse gas-producing incineration. What the province needs is a balanced approach that includes treatment technologies that are appropriate for the range of waste that is increasing every year," said Busseri.