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.