< Browse more articles

Driving down the 401 east of Toronto, it is hard to miss the Durham-York Energy Center, the area’s new energy-from-waste facility. The structures at the site are modern-looking and include a tall industrial stack that reaches skyward. Its prominence next to the highway appears to send the message that energy-from-waste is here to stay in the province.

But how supportive are Ontarians really when it comes to wasteto-energy (WtE) facilities? It was not long ago that Ontario had a moratorium on waste incineration. So, as this technology continues to develop in the province, it is important to ask: how concerned are residents about the health and environmental impacts of WtE, and how do those concerns compare to landfilling without WtE? Further, what will happen to waste diversion efforts if WtE expands in the province?

Groups like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives are concerned that WtE actually encourages “wasting.” They suggest that if we know discards will be burned for energy, we will spend less effort reducing, reusing, and buying minimally packed materials.

Our research group, Realizing Waste’s Resource Potential (ReWaRP), addresses such questions in a paper we recently published in the academic journal Waste Management. Our team, comprised of faculty and students from Western University and the University of Toronto, found that greater support for WtE facilities in Ontario, coupled with a threat to diversion rates, may be more than just myths.

Based on 217 responses to our survey in the Greater Toronto Area, we determined that support for WtE is high in Ontario when compared to landfill. However, this favour drops considerably when people are asked about support for a local WtE facility.

When given four choices for their preferred facility for end-of-stream discards (landfill and incineration with and without WtE), the most preferred option was WtE incineration (65%) with WtE landfill coming in second, but only with half the support (35%).

Still, when asked if they would vote in favour of having a local WtE incinerator, only 43% of residents were supportive of the idea. When that vote question was added into an index of support (generally in favour + key for waste management + vote in favour + would live near), support dropped to 36%. So like all survey research, the answer to the question, “How supported is WtE”, depends largely on how you measure “support.”

It is perhaps not surprising that WtE is the option residents prefer today, but are people thinking and acting in a way that supports a zero-waste future? Not exactly. We asked residents if they have the intention to divert less (e.g., put fewer items in the blue or green bin) if they knew their discards were going to a WtE facility.

The percentages seem low, with 18% saying they would divert less in a WtE landfill regime and 14% in a WtE incineration regime. Consider, however, that provincial diversion rates are already way below what they are elsewhere in the world, and certainly nowhere near zero-waste.

Diversion Rates

It is no myth that, when forced to choose, WtE is preferred over nonWtE facilities, and WtE incineration much more so than WtE landfill. On that same page, it is no myth that waste diversion rates can be threatened by WtE.

The industry, policymakers, and residents themselves have come to grips with downward pressure on diversion rates.

Places like Belgium use legislation and fines to enforce waste diversion targets under WtE. Moving forward, Ontario will have to look seriously at such options (again) if WtE is to be part of a high diversion future.

As Ontarians drive past facilities like the Durham-York Energy Center, it is how we wrestle such issues that will determine how they are viewed: as symbols of an environmentally progressive future or a blight on the landscape.

 Jamie Baxter is a professor at the Department of Geography, Western University