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.”

Transforming Garbage into Clean Fuel


Transforming Garbage into Clean Fuel

What happens to waste we can’t recycle or compost? In much of the world, it’s destined for a landfill or incinerator. In the landfill, waste emits methane, which is about 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. Incinerating garbage can be used to generate electricity, but that also emits large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Canadian company Enerkem is changing that. It took 15 years of research for the Chornet family, who founded the company back in 2000, to develop a unique world-leading technology. After creating a pilot and small-scale demonstration plant, the stage was set to build an industrial-scale operation. Enerkem’s Alberta Biofuels facility opened in 2015 in Edmonton, the world’s first commercial scale facility to produce clean energy from waste.

Around this time, the City of Edmonton was looking into more ways to divert waste away from their landfill. The landfill was nearing capacity, and even though Edmonton had a strong recycling and composting program, only 50 per cent of its waste was being diverted from the landfill.

At first, the biofuels facility turned garbage into methanol, a flammable liquid used in hundreds of household products like paint, glue, automotive parts and textiles. Enerkem recently upgraded the facility to be able to also produce ethanol, which is used as a biofuel and can be mixed with gasoline.

The facility can divert 100,000 tons of garbage from the Edmonton landfill each year, and creates 40 million liters of ethanol from that process.

Edmonton is seen as a flagship.
— Pierre Boisseau, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing

“Edmonton is seen as a flagship,” said Pierre Boisseau, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Enerkem. “The Government of Alberta and the City of Edmonton are being recognized for their leadership from an environmental standpoint.”

Boisseau promotes Enerkem’s technology to a diverse audience to gain visibility and awareness. The response to this facility has been very positive, he said, both in Edmonton and around the world, adding that because their technology compliments instead of competes with recycling and composting, cities have been quick to embrace it.

Enerkem is now getting attention from across the world, from other cities and countries interested in turning landfill waste into usable fuel. The next Canadian facility Enerkem is building will be in Montréal, and there are other potential projects including in the Netherlands, Spain, the U.S. and China.

Learn more about Enerkem’s Alberta Biofuels facility, here.

For more information on bioenergy in Alberta, see our resources page.

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