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Getting to 80

Another day, another load. A long line of dump trucks trundles into the Roseridge landfill in Sturgeon County.
Garbage collected in St. Albert
Garbage collected in St. Albert

Another day, another load.

A long line of dump trucks trundles into the Roseridge landfill in Sturgeon County. Each crawls over the stinky, seagull-infested landscape, vomits a ball of trash onto the ever-growing piles, and then lumbers off, ready to collect some more.

Our trash isn't a pretty sight, especially at the rate it's piling up. Each person in the capital region sends some 1,146 kilograms of trash to landfills each year, according to the Capital Region Waste Minimization Advisory Committee (CRWMAC), making us some of the most wasteful people in Canada.

Devon Mayor Anita Fisher, chair of CRWMC, which includes St. Albert and Sturgeon County, says she hopes to reverse this trend.

"Right now we're at about 80-per-cent disposal and 20-per-cent diversion," she says. "We'd like to flip that."

The committee set a goal last year of diverting 80 per cent of the capital region's trash from the landfill by 2020, and applied for a provincial grant this fall to figure out how. This is Waste Reduction Week, running until Oct. 23, and here's some ideas on how we might make all that junk disappear.

Maximize municipal

As executive director for the Recycling Council of Alberta, Christina Seidel's job is to push Albertans to make less waste.

Waste is expensive. Alberta governments spend about $252 million a year to manage our waste, not including the cost of the greenhouse gases they produce and the new material that has to be used to replace it.

Eighty-per-cent diversion is an ambitious goal, Seidel says. The only place she knows of that's even close to that is San Francisco, and it's at 77.

"You'd have to have a full recycling and organics program that's performing with virtually 100-per-cent participation to get anywhere near that number."

But not everyone has the infrastructure needed to run such programs. Even if they did, there will always be some trash that's simply unrecyclable.

The solution to both of these problems may be simple: Edmonton. The city's waste management centre is big enough to handle all the waste from the capital region, says Jim Schubert, the city's supervisor of waste conversion technologies, and could fill any regional gaps. "You don't have to build your own facility. Just take advantage of what has already been built."

As for the unrecyclable stuff, they're working on that too. Schubert steps into the just-built $12.5 million Advanced Energy Research Facility at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. A tangled mass of tanks, pipes, valves and walkways that towers three stories tall, it's the little brother of a bigger $80 million facility being built nearby by Enerkem — that one should be ready in 2015.

Schubert reaches into a bin and grabs a handful of shredded, multi-coloured fluff. Mixed plastics, packaging, clothing and other forms of trash aren't easily recycled, he explains, but they're still packed with carbon. Carbon is energy and we can tap it through gasification.

First, Schubert explains, all the non-recyclable, non-compostable stuff that falls out of the Edmonton plant's sorting systems gets shredded into two-inch wide bits, producing the fluff he's holding.

Pneumatic tubes suck the fluff into a tall tank that bakes it at about 1,000 C, breaking it into a combination of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and ash. Cyclones spin out the ash, which can be used in concrete, while catalysts transform the gases into fuel.

This system is able to convert about 90 per cent of what goes into it into fuel, Schubert says, and should suck up 12.5 tonnes of trash an hour when fully operational. All this for about $70 a tonne — about the same that it costs to landfill the junk, except now we're getting use out of it.

The rest of the pie

Seidel says municipal waste makes up just 24 per cent of Alberta's trash stream, with the remaining 76 per cent coming from business, industry and institutions.

"Until we go after that 76 per cent, we're not going to get anywhere near our target."

Edmonton's Earth's General Store is going after that 76 per cent. So committed to recycling is owner Mike Kalmanovitch that he actually digs through the store's trash can to pick out cardboard burger boxes.

"Not all of this is waste," he says. "This is a resource that can be used again and again."

Kalmanovitch takes a bewildering number of steps to reduce waste at his store. He says every piece of cardboard that comes through the store is recycled, while any scrap food or vegetables goes into his compost bins at home. He charges customers five cents whenever they ask for a bag and lets them use their own glass bottles to buy bulk food or soap.

"We probably generate two bags of garbage a week."

The construction and demolition industry is particularly bad at waste reduction. This sector produces one quarter of Alberta's trash, according to the province, yet recycles less than 10 per cent of its waste.

Chandos Construction in Edmonton is one of the exceptions. Jennifer Hancock, the company's director of sustainable construction, says she convinced her bosses back in January to get the company's crews to sort their construction waste on-site when possible and ship it to recyclers. As of August the company had recycled about 679 tonnes of waste from its sites, achieving a diversion rate of about 66 per cent.

Why'd they do it? Landfills tend to charge less for sorted waste than unsorted, Hancock notes, so recycling saves them money. It also makes them ready if the province decides to legislate recycling on work sites.

"It's the right thing to do, and we see the benefit in prepping the company for the future."

Turning the tide

Most businesses don't bother with recycling or composting because it's not their core job, Seidel says.

"Unless they have someone to help them, they don't necessarily have the knowledge."

One solution could be education. Edmonton used to offer free waste audits to small businesses, Kalmanovich notes, which the stores could use to reduce waste and show off their green credentials.

Regulation is another. The province toyed with a deposit system on construction waste back in 2008, Seidel notes (where companies put money down that they could get back if they met waste reduction targets), but has dropped the idea for unknown reasons.

"I wish the government would dust off that program and implement it."

Recycling could be made mandatory, as San Francisco did in 2009. All residents and businesses there must now sort their waste into separate trash, compost and recycling bins, according to the city's environmental department, while construction sites must keep at least 65 per cent of their waste out of the landfill.

Mandatory recycling has been a big boost to San Francisco's waste reduction efforts, says Friday Apaliski, the city's environmental outreach co-ordinator.

"It's becoming standard practice, and the more it becomes that way, the easier it is to get people on board."

The city passed 75 per cent diversion in 2010, she notes, and is hoping to become waste-free by 2020.

It's also important to be able to explain to people why we're doing this, Apaliski adds. The city is diverting tonnes and tonnes of waste from the landfill, but is also saving energy, storing carbon and giving farmers compost.

The important thing the capital region can do to reach its target is to simply take it seriously, Seidel says. "We need some serious political commitment to actually go after this goal."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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