Beyond landfills: Alberta association looking for waste management alternatives

Beyond landfills: Alberta association looking for waste management alternatives

It happens all the time: we forget our reusable bags in the car, so instead we resort to using the plastic grocery varieties at the till.

When the plastic bag inevitably rips or we have no other use for it, we throw it out. Eventually it’s sent to a landfill, where it remains unchanged, for decades.

But a not-for-profit association in southern Alberta is trying to change that.

We’re not after the stuff that can be recycled, we’re after the stuff that can’t be recycled, that would only go into landfills.
— Paul Ryan, Vice Chair, Southern Alberta Energy from Waste Association

“If we wanted to build a landfill, we could build a landfill,” said Paul Ryan, vice chair of the Southern Alberta Energy from Waste Association (SAEWA). “But we don’t want to build a landfill. We want to find another way of managing waste.”

Incorporated in 2012, SAEWA is a member-based coalition of municipal entities and waste management jurisdictions – extending from the Red Deer County line to the United Sates border – that is researching sustainable waste management technologies that will reduce long-term reliance on landfills.

SAEWA doesn’t compete or interfere with existing recycling operations. Rather, its focus is on post-recyclables – end-of-life materials like plastic straws, supermarket bags or dirty cardboard that can no longer be recycled.

“We’re not after the stuff that can be recycled,” said Ryan. “We’re after the stuff that can’t be recycled, that would only go into landfills.”

According to Ryan, 30 per cent of the waste generated in Canada cannot be recycled.

As a sustainable alternative to landfills, SAEWA is in the final planning stages of building an energy-from-waste (EFW) treatment facility in Alberta, a technologically advanced way to dispose of waste, while also generating clean, alternative energy.

Prominent in Europe, EFW technology is well understood, said Ryan, so by looking at current practices, SAEWA has been able to measure its emissions and operating costs, and pick the technology that will best address the waste stream in southern Alberta.

The idea is to build a facility where, once recyclables have been removed from the waste stream, the remaining materials are incinerated.

The heat recovered can then be used to generate electricity or provide district heating. In some cases, it can be used to process the plastics that were initially removed from the waste stream.

While an EFW facility does produce greenhouse gas emissions, Ryan said in comparing the lifecycle to that of a landfill, SAEWA found the amount of emissions to be considerably less.

“For 300,000 tonnes of waste per year, we discovered if we didn’t landfill it, we would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by about 260,000 tonnes per year, or 7 million tonnes over the life of the project,” said Ryan.

For many municipalities, EFW facilities are also a more cost-efficient method of managing waste.

Since landfills can give off methane gas for up to 50 years after they cease to operate, municipalities are saddled with maintaining and monitoring the site long after it ceases to generate revenue from dumping fees. Alternatively, said Ryan, an EFW facility’s revenue is more certain.

In addition, an EFW can generate many high-paying technological jobs for the community, he said.

From an individual perspective, since an EFW facility would streamline the waste and recycling process, it would not only save time and effort sorting waste into multiple bins, but also help keep waste management costs at a reasonable level.

Plus, with a simplified recycling process, Ryan said people will be more in tune with where their waste goes, and recycling will increase.

While there isn’t a facility in place yet, SAEWA is assessing the availability of multiple sites. After finding a site, the association will determine how it will be funded – either as a regional utility, or through the private sector.

Either way, Ryan said it’s important that waste management businesses stop working in silos and embrace alternative technologies that will simultaneously generate clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate the economy.

“I think we’ve all become a little bit more attuned to the waste problem we have in North America,” said Ryan.

“We need to look at energy from waste as just one tool in a box of tools for managing the waste we produce as a society.”