Burning Garbage is Unsustainable and Unimaginative

Originally published Aug 2nd, 2011 on Vancouver Observer

Last week, B.C. took a big step away from sustainability when Environment Minster Terry Lake rubber-stamped a plan to build a gigantic “mass burn” waste incinerator.

 I have been fighting this plan for years. What frustrates me the most about waste incineration is the lack of imagination. We must not knowingly continue to be fundamentally unsustainable when it comes to our consumption and waste patterns.

The majority of us hear the words burning garbage and instinctively know that it is bad. There is a mountain of health and climate studies explaining why incineration is a bad idea but you don’t need to read them all to know that this is the wrong way to go.

The appeal of waste incinerators is that they seem like a fancy new gadget, complete with nifty diagrams and design schemes, plus spreadsheets declaring success. Waste incinerators are not such a new idea. Burning stuff is one of the oldest human ideas. We are all coming around to understanding that it’s time to move beyond fire as the answer to all our questions. Isn’t it burning stuff that causes all the pollution and the carbon emissions that cause global warming? Yeah sure you can turn a turbine with steam from burning a pile of garbage. But is that really such an accomplishment? Can’t we do a lot better than that? The heart of the issue at hand is still being ignored.

Sustainability means that we must learn to continuously cycle resources- ecosystems create no waste, and we must do the same.

Burning stuff is the fastest way to be truly wasteful. Industry reps call incineration Waste To Engery; it is really a Waste Of Energy. Enormous energy goes into extracting minerals and resources to manufacture and deliver goods and is all wasted when that stuff goes up in flames. For every tonne of garbage burned you can capture 1 barrel of oil worth of energy — but it took about 10 barrels of oil to produce the stuff to begin with. And this scheme never addresses our unsustainable dependence on oil-that’s what much of the flammable garbage is made of.

There are smarter, non-polluting ways of producing energy than burning garbage. But beyond this, if we are going to achieve sustainability we must stop endlessly consuming virgin materials. This is a design issue, and zero-waste designs exist. We need to change the way things are made.

Lack of imagination is unacceptable given the challenges we all face. We need to stand up to the powerful corporations and demand change. Why should we pay to bury or burn their flawed products? Regional policy makers responsible for waste plans need to tell companies making disposable, un-compostable and un-recyclable materials that they are being put on notice. Strong extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules already exists in BC.

We need much higher diversion rates which means EPR rules must be supported and enforced to successfully ban materials from landfill. We need to work with manufacturers to find better ways to provide essential products and services in ways that bring us closer and closer to zero waste by keeping everything out of the landfills. Right now the regional “waste diversion” rate is around 55 per cent composted or recycled. Their goal is to get to 70 per cent waste diversion from landfill, but sustainability means 90 per cent or higher. Its doable; its just going to take clarity of focus and imagination. We have no choice, its our role in this era in our collective history to solve this problem.

For more information visit No-Burn.org

This one minute clip from The Story of Stuff does a great job of summarizing the issue.

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