How Edmonton is Finding Value in Its Waste Stream

By reusing, recycling or composting everything possible, the Canadian city of Edmonton is on its way to reaching the seemingly impossible goal of diverting 90 percent of trash from landfills.
by | August 26, 2013
A waste management facility in Edmonton, Alberta.
Edmonton, Alberta, already diverts 60 percent of its waste from landfills but it's seeking to up that to 90 percent. FlickrCC/Green Energy Futures

A growing volume of waste has long been viewed as a natural consequence of industrializing society. Unfortunately, we also have grown accustomed to disposing of most of what touches our lives, resulting in the challenge of managing vast quantities of municipal waste.

Edmonton, Alberta, facing the familiar problem of dwindling landfill capacity, has set what many might consider an impossible goal: diverting 90 percent of its waste from its landfills. As much of a stretch as that might seem, Edmonton already had a diversion rate of 60 percent, thanks in large part to a major composting facility completed in 2001 -- an already enviable figure in a province with an average residential waste-diversion rate of 29 percent.

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But to get to 90 percent, Edmonton's leaders knew that they would need to go beyond traditional approaches. So the city's leaders looked for and found value in Edmonton's waste stream. Edmonton, they decided, needed to stop wasting its waste.

They started by getting input from residents over a period of many months. "We did not dictate to residents," said Roy Neehall, general manager of Waste RE-Solutions Edmonton, a city-owned corporation. "We listened, educated, listened." What the city found, Neehall said, is that its residents were "way ahead of politicians and administrators" on this issue.

It became clear that the city needed to pursue a holistic, integrated approach, one that viewed waste in the social context of the community. To divert usable items from the waste stream, for example, the city established a Reuse Centre where residents can drop off items such as office and school supplies that aren't typically accepted by charities. The Reuse Centre is staffed mostly by volunteers from the community. The city also set up a nonprofit organization to provide entry-level waste-management positions to the disadvantaged.

Of particular importance is keeping hazardous materials out of sewers and drains, so residents are asked to bring such items as leftover paint and household chemicals to recycling drop-off points called Eco Stations. (When needed, the city will collect hazardous materials from the homes of disabled residents.) The city's composting facility handles such items as used wallboard, adding its gypsum to its compost processes.

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For all of that, getting to the 90 percent diversion level entailed investigating waste-to-energy technology to address material that can't be reused, recycled or composted. City leaders knew from their public-outreach efforts that citizens didn't want incineration, so they looked for another approach.

After an international search, they contracted with a Montreal firm for technology that uses waste as a feedstock to produce a synthetic gas that can be converted to methanol or ethanol. Once the new biofuels facility becomes fully operational in 2015, the city expects to have attained its goal of a 90 percent diversion rate.

Where does Edmonton go from here? The city has committed itself to continual improvement, fostering that by establishing the not-for-profit Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence and the Edmonton Advanced Energy Research Facility, which is jointly funded with the province.

And the city hopes to make its experience available to others, marketing its waste-management expertise via Waste RE-Solutions Edmonton, the city-owned corporation. I'd say Edmonton's leaders have earned the right to talk trash to the rest of the world.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com

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