York Region’s early garbage solution could be a lesson for neighbouring Simcoe

With landfills nearly full, the county has to figure out what to do with its trash – when York and Durham faced the same challenge 20 years ago, they partnered to turn garbage into energy

Time is a terrible thing to waste — just ask the experts at the Durham-York Energy Centre.

During a County of Simcoe council meeting in April, councillors were informed that the last three landfills in Simcoe County —  in Collingwood, Nottawasaga and Oro-Medonte —  would be full and closed by 2024, 2025 and 2030 respectively. Looking ahead, the current long-term plan according to county officials is to pay to export the trash outside of the county’s borders indefinitely.

Questions were raised by councillors concerning what would happen if the exporters decided to stop accepting Simcoe County’s trash down the road.

Simcoe County director of solid waste management Rob McCullough said landfill space across Ontario is filling up fast, and he foresees a major problem once sites provincewide close and exporting to other countries may become the new solution.

The current waste management challenges facing Simcoe County are the same ones that plagued neighbours to the south 20 years ago.

The Durham-York Energy Centre opened in Courtice, Ont. in 2015, opening to further commercial operations in 2016. The energy-from-waste facility converts garbage into energy to be sold back to the provincial grid, and when it opened it was one of the first energy-from-waste facilities built in Ontario in about 25 years.

It is one of only three approved operational energy-from-waste facilities in Ontario that process municipal waste, the other two being Emerald Energy From Waste Inc. in Brampton and Northland Power/Kirkland Lake Power Corp. in Kirkland Lake.

The idea was first sparked back in 1999, when Durham Region began work on a long-term waste management plan.

“There was a suggestion within that plan that we investigate energy-from-waste,” said Gio Anello, director of waste management for Durham Region. “At that time, we were transporting our garbage to Michigan. There was an impending closure of the borders, and also we were looking to close our last landfill here in Durham.”

“We were looking for a sustainable disposal option for us,” he said.

Anello says Durham Region council had made significant decisions back in 1999 that there would be no new landfills in Durham, and any waste solutions that came forward, needed to be local ones.

“They recognized it was our problem, and we shouldn’t be imposing our issues on other municipalities,” he said.

With the impending closure of the Michigan border on the horizon (it officially closed to waste transport in 2008/09) and diminishing landfill space across Ontario, regional staff started investigating the option of thermal treatment of waste.

Although, the decision wasn’t without opposition.

“It’s not easy. Even though you have the majority of the population in favour of moving forward with energy-from-waste, you will have a minority opposition that is quite vocal and quite organized,” said Anello.

Anello estimates more than 100 public meetings took place between 1999 and 2015 to provide room for the public to give feedback at every step along the process.

Multiple studies took place including a human health and ecological risk assessment. Anello said the additional assessment wasn’t required as an environmental assessment was already done, however the human health assessment was intended to provide assurances to the public that any issues faced would be manageable.

“You’re always going to have people who are never going to support this,” he said. “It required a lot of transparency with the public.”

Anello said it also required some education on the part of the provincial government. As he said this would be one of the first energy-from-waste facilities built in about 25 years, very detailed plans were required to get everyone on-board before permitting could be granted.

A cross-region partnership

The potential partnership between Durham and York regions was first floated in about 2005.

“Both regions were looking for a secure disposal option,” said Anello. “The bigger the energy-from-waste facility you build, the more economical it becomes. We wanted a larger facility that could handle both our regions’ waste.”

Meanwhile, York Region was also using landfills as their primary waste solution back in the early 2000s, although a focus on diversion was always present.

York Region had an existing 100,000-tonne contract with Dongara Developments in Vaughan, a company that converted garbage into fuel pellets.

“We had this while we were working with Durham on planning… for the co-owned energy-from-waste facility,” said Laura McDowell, director of environmental promotion and protection with York Region.

According to media reports, Dongara closed its doors in 2014.

“(Dongara) was a bit ahead of its time, I think,” said McDowell.

McDowell says Durham and York have a long-standing partnership that lent itself well to a joint venture when it came to waste management. She points to the Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Pickering, which is also co-owned by the two regions.

“We already had a really strong partnership, and I think it just extended beyond wastewater into waste management,” she said. “We certainly wanted to get out of Michigan to reduce the trucking costs.”

The regions worked out a deal where Durham Region was the majority shareholder with 79 per cent of the cost and tonnage processed, while York Region pays 21 per cent of the costs and tonnage processed.

McDowell says York Region’s philosophy when it comes to solid waste management differs from Durham, in that they prefer to diversify methods.

Currently, in addition to sending some waste through the Durham-York Energy Centre, York also has waste contracts with Emerald Energy from Waste in Brampton and Covanta Energy from Waste in New York. They also still use some landfill options.

York Region processes 380,000 tonnes of garbage, green bin, recycling and other waste annually. For just garbage, 141,000 tonnes run through energy-from-waste facilities.

“From our experience, what has helped us really be successful is having a diverse portfolio of options,” said McDowell. “In these facilities they need to temporarily do maintenance and sometimes they need to shut down for a week or two. You need to have options because the waste doesn’t stop coming.”

How does it work?

When garbage enters the energy-from-waste facility, it is dumped in a large pit.

“We operate under negative pressure that means that we’re sucking air into the building and therefore, there are no odours,” said Anello.

Once the garbage enters the pit, Anello says it is “fluffed up” with a crane, and is then fed into a boiler.

“The boiler has a double wall and between the walls, there is water. As the garbage burns within the boiler – natural gas is used to start it and then energy released from the garbage as it burns continues the process – and as it burns it heats up the water… to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. It turns the water into steam,” said Anello.

“That high-pressure steam is then put through a turbine generator and that creates electricity,” he said.

The electricity is then used to power the entire plant, with the leftovers sold to the provincial grid.

Two kinds of ash are left once the garbage is burned: fly ash, which is considered hazardous is treated on-site by mixing it with concrete to create gravel, while bottom ash, which is not hazardous, is sent to a landfill to be used as a cover.

Anello estimates the centre generates $8 million in revenue annually for the regions through energy sales.

Metals are also recovered at the centre and sold for scrap. Anello estimates the centre recovers about $500,000 annually from the scrap…

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