Mayor's Report - August 2008

Life Cycle Analysis of Landfills vs. Waste-to-Energy

Mayor Ralph Drew

In November 2007 I outlined how waste-to-energy (WTE) is a critical component of Europe’s waste disposal strategy, and why WTE makes sense for Metro Vancouver. In early August the updated final report entitled Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Solid Waste Management prepared by consultants The Sheltair Group was received by Metro Vancouver’s Waste Management Committee, and this report provides an interesting comparative analysis of ‘Landfills’ versus ‘WTE’.

The report uses Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the energy and resources consumed and the emissions produced for two hypothetical solid waste disposal scenarios for the Metro Vancouver region –– a ‘Landfill’ scenario using an out-of-region landfill, and a ‘waste-to-energy’ (WTE) scenario using a facility located within the region. The term “solid waste” refers to the current municipal solid waste (MSW) that goes to disposal after the existing recycling and other diversion programs.

A summary of the life cycle consumption, production, and emissions for the two scenarios is shown below in Table S-1. With respect to identifying the major contributors to the inventory it was found that:

  • The primary sources of consumption and emissions for most emissions categories occur at the site of the disposal facilities, i.e. at the ‘Landfill’ in the landfill scenario or at the ‘WTEF’ in the WTE scenario. This is true for the inventories items: electricity consumption and production, NOx, SOx and PM10 emissions, and Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Transportation and material handling emissions are not a substantial contributor to any of the emissions categories.
  • The upfront construction of the ‘WTEF’ or ‘Landfill’, when averaged across the lifetime of waste handling, does not have a substantial effect on the total inventory.

Landfills are a significant producer of GHGs –– landfill gas recovery efficiencies can vary widely, anywhere between 30% and 80% –– and even state-of-the-art landfill facilities seldom capture more than 50% of the fugitive methane that landfills generate. In fact, the LCA in the report indicates that the ‘Landfill’ scenario produces 27% more GHGs per tonne of MSW than the ‘WTE’ scenario, where the GHGs are expressed as the CO2 equivalent, and the report assumed a landfill gas collection efficiency of 65%.

A recent report by Golder Associates, commissioned by the BC Ministry of Environment, determined that the landfill gas collection efficiency at Vancouver Landfill was 35%, while the efficiency at Cache Creek Landfill was 36%. And these are some of the better landfills! Not surprisingly, British Columbia's Climate Action Team released their report on August 6th that makes a very strong recommendation against landfills.

Another interesting analysis by Marcel van Berlo of Amsterdam, entitled Unleashing The Power In Waste –– A great potential that should not be wasted, provides a CO2-evaluation for several different landfill and waste-to-energy concepts. The study shows that, due to the biomass content and the avoidance effect due to the recovery of energy and materials, conventional WTE has a near zero CO2-emission per ton of waste, and that optimised WTE can have a significant negative overall emission of 200-300 kg CO2 per ton of waste.

There is also significant energy revenue derived from WTE facilities. During 2007 the Burnaby WTEF generated $5 million in steam revenue and $6.7 million in electricity revenue ($11.7 million in total). This equated to revenue of $40.37 per tonne of MSW, and reduced the overall processing cost of $72.03 per tonne MSW to a net cost of $31.66 per tonne MSW. These revenues are also rapidly increasing with the increasing cost of energy. In addition, from the perspective of sustainable energy production, WTE facilities produce electricity and steam heat without burning fossil fuels, while utilizing a sustainable resource, that is, municipal solid waste. In Sweden, MSW is legislated as ‘energy-in-waiting’ and is treated as such.

As tax payers, we need to be looking for every opportunity to reduce the ever increasing burden on the residential property tax and, like many European countries, we also should pursue waste-to-energy facilities as the common-sense strategy it is!


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