A waste and recycling expert from Denmark has advised Metro Vancouver against the use of mechanized plants that attempt to sort recyclables from garbage.
Jacob Simonsen, managing director of the Danish Waste Association, said mixed-waste material recovery facilities (MRFs) have failed in testing in his country.
Recyclers generally don’t want to pay anything for the recyclables that are extracted because they are often heavily contaminated, he said.
“From an environmental point of view. I would not be able to recommend it,” Simonsen said in an interview after a June 25 presentation to Metro’s zero waste committee.
“I do not see any positive environmental impacts from going down that road.”
Metro has been under pressure from Belkorp Environmental to authorize a proposed material recovery plant in Coquitlam.
Metro officials have been skeptical that it would work, and other critics fear that, taken to the extreme, mechanized sorting of recyclables from garbage would encourage residents to throw everything into one garbage bin and stop separating recyclables.
“The way to go about it is to have source separation if you want to move towards a zero waste society,” Simonsen said.
In Denmark, 56 per cent of residential waste is recycled, while 41 per cent goes to waste-to-energy plants, and three per cent is landfilled.
Danish waste incinerators are often located in densely populated areas and tied into district heating systems.
Simonsen said there’s been increasing success in extracting more metals from the bottom ash of incinerated garbage as technology improves.
“We can actually sort out all sorts of metals, down to grain size that’s less than 0.5 millimetres,” he said.
Denmark is building new waste-to-energy plants to replace older ones and is counting on district heating as a key part of its strategy of generating energy with minimal carbon emissions.
He acknowledged the case for waste-to-energy plants may be stronger in Denmark, where energy recovered from waste replaces the carbon-intensive burning of coal, compared to B.C., where electricity is generated renewably from hydroelectricity.
Each Dane throws out 600 kilograms of garbage per year, worse than Swedes at around 400 kilograms each, but not nearly as bad as Metro Vancouverites, who generate more than a tonne of garbage per capita.
“We throw out a lot of buildings,” observed Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer.
Belkorp vice-president Russ Black dismissed Simonsen’s views on material recovery facilities as “fear-mongering” by the incineration industry.
“These things work and they continue to be built,” he said, pointing to new MRFs coming on stream in the U.S. that he said are more advanced than previous European efforts.
He said MRFs aren’t generally compatible with waste-to-energy plants because they remove the paper and plastics from garbage that generate the most energy when burned.
“In Denmark, they are heavily invested in incineration,” Black said. “Mixed waste MRFs would jeopardize that investment.”