How a ‘Futuristic’ Garbage Disposal Turned Into a Smoke-Belching Waste Crisis for Ontario’s Six Nations
An inventor sold them on the dream of a "zero-emission" solution to their waste problems. Now he's MIA.
The Six Nations community in southern Ontario had been piling their garbage onto an overflowing landfill since 2006, but thought their trash troubles would finally be over when they were pitched a supposedly innovative solution.
Wearing a paddy cap and speaking with a charming Scottish brogue, John Kearns, 77, promised the southern Ontario First Nations community "a new and very unique technology," a waste disposal unit with zero (zero!) emissions. Kearns told them that his machine, which he called "The Disintegrator," would be easier to maintain and more cost efficient than a run-of-the-mill incinerator. Though he doesn't exactly cut the figure of an slick, Silicon Valley-type innovator, Kearns is no stranger to a powerful sales pitch. His "Disintegrator," having never been sold or tested in a practical environment, was a risk for Six Nations, but according to Kearns they were on the frontier of environmentally friendly waste-disposal technology, "[t]he world is full of people prepared to be second. It has taken us quite a bit to find someone to be first."
But a few weeks after firing up the device for the first time, community members noticed black smoke and the smell of burning plastic coming from the site. After they protested, the machine was shut down until an independent environmental assessment could be completed. When independent consultants looked at The Disintegrator, they discovered it was emitting 200 times the Ontario provincial limits of some toxins. Six Nations Elected Council (SNEC) held a meeting to consult with community about their options last week, but Kearns was nowhere to be found and unavailable to answer questions, nor has he responded to VICE's multiple interview requests by phone or by email. Six Nations put $805,000 into the project, but the inventor is nowhere in sight.
For Six Nations, the failure of another waste disposal device is a large problem. According to the Two Row Times, SNEC purchased a $1.3 million incinerator from the British Columbia-based EcoAceSolutions after the Six Nations landfill filled up in 2006. But the company went bankrupt before all the parts could be delivered, forcing the council to look for another option.
Though Kearns touted his machine as a "new and different" technology, Kearns actually created The Disintegrator three decades ago, which means the innovative technology is about as old as Michael Jackson's moonwalk. According to Pat Bates, who worked with Kearns as the vice-president of the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, he developed it for Sydney, Nova Scotia, but they declined to purchase it at the time. Ever since, he's been pitching the device to various communities, from Peel Region to Armour Township to Kawartha Lakes, who all declined, probably because Kearns is selling a machine with a name that sounds like the title to a straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren movie.
He advertised the device with a relatively slick website, which tells you a lot about the benefits of the device but not a lot about the science, and this hilariously overwrought video on YouTube that positions The Disintegrator as mankind's saviour from a world of trash. When a local newspaper asked him why the machine wasn't approved by governing authorities, Kearns said things like "they wouldn't give me a permit because I don't conform," positioning himself as a rebel against the supposed politics and corruption that governs much municipal waste management. His lone claim to The Disintegrator's effectiveness was a 130-page third-party report by AMEC (now AMEC Foster Wheeler), an engineering consultancy firm, from 2000.
But the stats that Kearns mentions from the report don't represent the whole story. Kearns told the CBC a little over a year ago that "Comparing the two [the incinerator to The Disintegrator] would be like comparing the biplane to the F18. They both fly, but one decidedly different to the other." But Murray Thomson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, says the system, as presented on Kearns's website, "looks on the face of it like a fairly conventional incineration system," and suspects that Kearns's decision to brand it as a new technology is motivated by PR rather than science. While Kearns positioned The Disintegrator as an entirely new technology, the machine was never anything more than a variant of existing incinerators, even if it functioned properly.
While Kearns emphasized the "zero-emissions" aspect of the machine in his pitch, he only used a couple metrics, such as The Disintegrator's 0.00 total hydrocarbon parts per million THC emissions, as proof. He said it does this by operating at a high temperature, but higher temperatures can also cause the release of non-hydrocarbon toxins. "Normally," says Thomson, "higher temperatures would give you more NOx [nitrous oxide] emissions and the other downside is higher temperatures might evaporate more metals."
While low-emission incinerators exist, and are quite common in Europe, a considerable amount of money is required to develop and maintain those technologies. Thomson points to Plasco Energy Group's "plasma gasification" process, in which waste is converted into gases that are used for energy, as an example. "When I went there on a tour everyone was excited and we were like, 'This is going to solve every problem in the world!'" But despite sound science (clearly explained in a video that doesn't suggest the apocalypse is nigh), $140 million in private investment, and a $180-million deal signed with the city of Ottawa, Plasco filed for creditor protection earlier this year. Technologies like that exist in a different world than The Disintegrator, which Kearns advertises as a low-cost and low-maintenance alternative to incineration.
Given the benefit of the doubt, The Disintegrator isn't bad technology, it's just not particularly novel. Instead of investing in a new, groundbreaking "zero-emissions" technology, Six Nations bought a faulty, ten-year-old incinerator with 30-year-old technology. If the Council had wanted to purchase a regular-non-disintegrating incinerator, they would have had better luck with a provincially-approved machine from a more trustworthy source, but they went with Kearns's plan, and now the community may now be stuck with it.
SNEC agreed to pay for a testing phase of the machine, which came to approximately $805,000, pending a $4.8 million purchase if the testing proved successful. According to a newsletter distributed at last week's community meeting, the council is still considering a purchase, despite the fact that the machine is emitting carcinogenic toxins and residents of the community are worried about the effect of the emissions on their health. Six Nations Elected Chief Ava Hill declined to talk to VICE about the situation, but the community still has to find a workable way to dispose of their excess trash, and soon.
It's not likely to come from some magical device like The Disintegrator.
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