Waste to energy: 
An overdue reality check

We’ve heard a lot about waste to energy in recent years. It’s time for a reality check.

Lawmakers and others maintain that the sure way to get rid of the George Town landfill is to burn it to the ground and sell off the resulting electricity for a tidy sum.

Two birds. One stone. Money in the bank.

Now, this newspaper does recognize that waste to energy may be a technological marvel. But it’s not a miracle.

Waste-to-energy technology should indeed be considered as part of an overall solid waste management strategy when the island moves on from the George Town dump. However, it’s not a workable solution for the existing dump.

Clearly, implementing waste-to-energy technology does not eliminate the need to establish a new landfill. (Although burning trash can reduce its volume by up to 90 percent, the highly toxic ash still has to be disposed of. We think it is unwise, and certainly unaffordable, to follow the example set by Bermuda, which entombs its toxic ash in concrete blocks and drops them into the sea.)

An inconvenient truth is that no one has ever been able to demonstrate the financial viability or physical feasibility of using waste-to-energy technology to reduce Mount Trashmore down to size.

In February 2008, Cayman Islands government consultants Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. released a draft development plan for a waste-to-energy facility on the site of the George Town landfill.

The consultants advised it would cost the government $122 million in initial capital, plus about $20 million per year in operating expenses. (In that fiscal year, government’s solid waste management budget was about $10.5 million.) Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Mount Trashmore has continued to grow and government resources have continued to shrink.

Put another way, the government doesn’t have the money to build a viable waste-to-energy facility, and, even if it did, it doesn’t have the money to operate it.

Years after the 2008 plan went nowhere, the same consultants revisited the issue in February 2012, endorsing the Dart Group’s plan to shut down the dump and open a new landfill in far east Bodden Town. They emphasized that there is just not enough space at the current location and an alternative venue must be found.

In March 2013, industry giant Waste Management/Wheelabrator also cast doubts on a waste-to-energy solution and supported the idea of starting a new landfill from scratch, which they said “would, in our opinion, represent an attractive and viable technical option.”

All of the above being said, waste-to-energy technology is proven to reduce greatly the amount of material that must be buried, while producing a modest revenue stream from the sale of electricity. It should be in the conversation when discussing future waste management strategies but should not be viewed as a panacea. Any requests for proposals from the ministry must leave open the possibility of remedies that include, but go beyond, waste to energy.

When the current government rejected the Dart proposal (valued at approximately $60 million) which would have paid for remediating the current site and constructing a new facility in Bodden Town, it placed the country in a very precarious position.

We now find ourselves with little or no money to pay for this monstrously expensive capital project and no ability to issue bonds or borrow from other sources. In a future editorial, we will examine the options for financing this effort, including earmarking the nearly $50 million in the Environmental Protection Fund for this purpose.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t believe rejecting Dart’s proposal put Cayman in a precarious position and i also don’t believe waste to energy is going to be the short term solution to our solid waste issues. While waste to energy has worked successfully in instances where these facilities are only fed with segregated, high calorific waste streams such as plastics and tire crumb, mining the GT landfill for waste to convert to energy will not work. There is simply not enough energy value in the mined waste or in incoming rubbish to support a WTE plant. The bare minimum solution is segregation of inerts like glass, metal and some CD wastes and incinerate the rest at high temperature.

    Some seem to think constructing a new landfill is the solution. Lined landfills that come with their own set of problems especially in climates with high ambient temperatures and rainfall. Leachate can become a big problem if not collected and treated. Gasses are also a major issue if not vented or tapped and used for some other purpose.

    For the existing dump, capping is the obvious solution, but if waste input is halted then levels of contamination in leachate will tail off eventually. Who knows what level of leachate contamination exists, or where all this leachate is going and how long it will take to naturally attenuate?

    These and many more questions still need to be answered before a decision is made. I don’t believe in making a decision based on who has the best sales campaign or who has an alternate agenda. Whatever we do now better be worth the money for the next 20 years. Like it or not, one thing is certain, we will all be paying much more, directly or indirectly to deal with our garbage in the near future.

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  2. Thanks Compass, please keep these editorials coming so people can read the facts in a clear and unbiased fashion. I certainly hope people start to take this seriously and realize that the George Dump is a Clear and Present Danger to us all and that danger will escalate if we continue to let the trash heap continue to grow.

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  3. One other thing, I as well do not think it was the rejection of the Dart Proposal that put Cayman in a precarious position. I think the root cause of this particular situation is years of uncontrolled dumping of garbage in the GT Dump and the failure of previous administrations to address this growing issue while the money was available in lieu of pursuing other costly capital projects. I think the outright rejection of the Dart deal based on one districts desire was a mistake that just compounded our current situation because now if the decision has to be made to create another site every other district is going to expect the same favoritism as Bodden Town received. Imagine the backlash if the CIG decides to put a new site in Northside or even West Bay. In the long run we will most likely just end up with a 100 Foot high MT Trashmore 5 years from now.

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  4. The Dump may seem big to us but by normal standards it is tiny; if you travel to Tampa you can see for miles their landfill tomb covered in bright white marl. I measured I was 15 miles away when I could still see it.

    As the dump is tiny overseas firms will want to be paid a lot more money than a local sensible business, oh course we will get the ‘get quick rich bids’ but in reality it does not cost that much.

    This article is misleading as the type of mass burn WTE plant is very expensive but so in a Formula one racing car. Cayman does not need the type of burner that will deal with 250,000 population’s waste but a modular system that can deal with 50,000 today and maybe 100,000 in ten years. There are many type of WTE burners some costing as little 250K which would deal with some of the non recyclable waste. The type I recommend is ‘biogas’ plant as these are cheap and used from rural India to inner city Europe.

    Basical a biogas plant take the organic or smelly waste, yard trash, paper, cardboard and sewage and in a closed vessel pulps the waste and collects the gases produced without the presence of air, which is the feed stock for a generator the waste product instead of toxic ash is compost which can be sold to the public ( read what miracle grow is made from) or used to cover the old land fill.

    The old land fill should be capped and the existing run off treated just as if the it was lined as there is a dyke which collect most of it all ready. It could be partial mined to reduce it size, this is a simple operation which is done at most land fill when they want more space and it not going blow up the tip, once again scaremongers.

    Once the landfill is capped and the recoverable waste separated and removed from site there is plant of room to build a biogas plant or similar low tech WTE plant. These could be privately financed and the bid should say the limit of annual cost the bidders will get so then we get rid of the pie in sky bids and country gets something that it can afford.

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  5. Sam, that sounds like a great idea but I have to ask. The estimated cost of remediating and capping the current dump was $30 million. With Cayman not being able to borrow any money, where do you suggest they get the money from to do this? Should it be the Environmental Protection Fund? If you believe it can be done for a lot less than that, please share your ideas about capping it.

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  6. So the developers of Ironwood state that they can take the tires from the GT Dump to use as fill. I certainly hope the CIG doesn’t screw this offer up trying to squeeze money out of them asking them to pay a huge sum for the tires. They’d be doing us a favor if they take them from the dump for free. The tires would still need to be processed into fill which will not be cheap.

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