The Real Debate: More Burning or More Recycling?

It’s no secret that Metro Vancouver’s plan for a second waste incinerator is a hot topic in our region. And as opposition to the construction of a $500 million taxpayer-funded waste incinerator increases, we’re seeing escalating efforts from Metro Vancouver to position the waste management debate as one of incineration vs. landfilling. This framing of the issue may be convenient for incineration proponents, but it does not capture the true debate. The real issue at stake is this: should recyclables be burned OR should recyclables be recycled?

The facts: Metro Vancouver has a laudable waste management goal of 70% diversion – in practical terms, that means that out of all of the waste we discard, 70% of it should be recycled and diverted away from disposal at landfills or incinerators. To that end, Metro’s Solid Waste Management Plan explicitly states that the region will maximize the recovery of recyclables before our waste goes to incineration and/or landfilling. Sounds good, right?

But, wait. To rationalize the cost of a new incinerator, proponents tout its ability to convert waste into energy – energy that can be sold to the grid. But this distracts from the real issue: in order to produce that energy, incinerators must burn recyclables. Indeed, Metro Vancouver has promised that after 70% regional diversion (remember, we are now at 58%), the “mixed waste feedstock” that feeds the incinerator would comprise 18% plastics (made from oil) and 16% paper. In fact, about 70% of the energy value for the incinerator is derived from recyclables.

Not only is burning recyclables not right, it is also in direct conflict with Metro Vancouver’s Solid Waste Management Plan priority to maximize recycling and material recovery (Goal #2) before disposal through incineration or landfilling.

Innovation and Solutions to Maximize Recycling

Instead of burning recyclables, let’s recycle them. Over the past decades, residents and businesses of our region have done an admirable job of sorting our recyclables at home and at work. However, a significant amount of recyclable material still ends up in our “garbage” – in fact, nearly half of what Metro Vancouver sends to disposal at incinerators or landfills is recyclable material. This is a waste, and there are better, smarter and greener options.

We believe more recycling can be extracted from the waste put at the curb, after recycling efforts, and before disposal to incineration or landfill. Once residents and businesses have already recycled as much as they can, mixed waste material recovery facilities (MRFs), like the one we propose to build in Coquitlam, can process the leftover garbage and use technology to “break open the bag”, pull out and sort recyclables and compostables not previously diverted. This way, more recyclables would be recycled instead of sent straight to incineration or landfill.

In addition to burning recyclables, Metro Vancouver’s proposed incinerator would need to be funded by taxpayers in the region, and BC Hydro ratepayers from everywhere in BC. Facilities like the NextUse mixed waste MRF can be built and operated by the private sector, which means the added value and increased recycling comes at no cost to the taxpayer. NextUse would create 80 new local jobs, and contribute to significant regional progress on recycling rates—as per the priority goals of Metro Vancouver’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

So as much as Metro Vancouver would like to reframe the debate as incineration vs. landfilling, what it comes down to is really this:

Would you rather recyclables be burned or recycled?

The answer is obvious.