Keeping Our Waste Management Strategy Bold

The Edmonton Waste Services Audit was recently released and the news is not great. While this audit has revealed problems with current operations, it has also given us the opportunity to refocus our waste management strategy. We must improve this vital service and recommit to excellence.

The strategy must match the vision

For a long time, many of us have believed Edmonton’s waste disposal service was innovative, world-class and quickly heading towards our goal of diverting 90% of our waste from landfills. However, we have not been able to reach our ambitious targets and progress has been stalled for quite some time.

Improving Edmonton’s waste diversion is essential and I will continue to work closely with Administration and Council to make sure that this is done right.

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The Edmonton Waste Management Center (EWMC) is composed of 19 different facilities, (soon to be 20 once the anaerobic digestion facility opens later this year) each focused on a different aspect of waste processing.

Currently, household waste is first sent to the Integrated Processing and Transfer Facility to be separated into 1 of 3 streams: composting, biofuels production, and landfill. However, due to concerns about the stability of the composting facility's roof, all material destined for compost is currently being sent to landfill. As well, the Enerkem Waste to Biofuel facility is not running at full capacity due to the moisture content contained in the garbage and the need to pre-dry waste materials.

We must come up with innovative strategies to address current problems while still planning for the future so we can reach our waste diversion targets and accommodate the increasing amount of waste produced by our growing population. The truth is we once these investments in technology like Enerkem begin to pay off we will be much closer to meeting our ambitions.

What can we do at home

The first action the City must engage our citizens in is source separation which most crucially means having separate collection of food scraps and organics. In Canada, 40%, or $31 Billion of all food produced is thrown out. Globally these numbers work out to 33%, or $990 Billion USD. While reducing that waste is ideal, composting the rest creates valuable, nutrient-rich soil from material that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

Municipalities across North America that have similar diversion targets such as Calgary, San Francisco and Vancouver, all require source separation of organics and yard waste. This would result in higher quality, more marketable compost thanks to the reduction in impurities. 

It would also result in drier, more usable material for the Enerkem waste to Biofuel facility since our compost, which naturally has higher water content, would no longer be adding moisture to the waste stream. With this newly separated compost material, we have the opportunity to restructure our recycling and composting strategy as well.

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Waste collection bins in San Francisco | http://bit.ly/2nOW2gp

Until those changes are implemented, one thing you can do at home is to go bagless when mowing your lawn this year. It’s healthier for your lawn, you don’t have to carry any garbage bags, and it's better for the environment. Half of all the waste collected from households in the summer is grass. Going bagless prevents the need to truck grass far away to a composter when it could be feeding your lawn. If every single-family household in Edmonton grass-cycled we would reduce CO2 emissions by the amount of annual CO2 emissions of 27,166 cars. As well, it would cut water use in half and reduce fertilizer use by 25% per household.

A new commercial waste strategy

Currently, we have a single, centralized composting facility with its unstable roof. Decentralization of composting facilities into smaller community composting facilities could reduce the need to truck waste far away and create opportunities for local composters at community gardens or private investment to take advantage of these resources.

In Vancouver Recycle-Now! provides solutions for businesses to improve internal recycling practices and acts as a brokering facility where different materials are received and transferred to the appropriate facilities for recycling. They are fostering real innovation with their aerobic composting design that allows for urban processing of organic waste without odour. This innovation could allow Edmonton to decentralize commercial composting.

Edmonton should evolve our relationship with the private sector from competition to collaboration in order to improve our commercial and institutional waste management programs. The Enerkem Biogas facility is a public-private partnership that continues to help us create value, in the form of methanol and ethanol, from material that would have otherwise gone to landfill.

We must also reevaluate how we can work with and serve commercial businesses, like malls and offices. Rather than competing with these businesses on hauling, we need to figure out how to get the private waste haulers collect into our diversion stream.

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The Enerkem Biogas Facility | http://bit.ly/2nOwW10

The recycling market is also changing, and Edmonton needs to catch up. Regulations around selling recycled materials to China has gotten stricter and profitability has gone down due to increased awareness about recycling resulting in increased availability of recycled materials. There is an opportunity for melting our own plastic here in Alberta, another innovative solution to our waste problem that could involve work with private investors.

Treating waste as a valuable product helps conserve natural resources, reduces greenhouse gas production and creates additional revenue from compost, recyclables, and biofuels. Improving Edmonton’s residential waste diversion will depend on the use of innovative technology, operational changes, and continued participation from all of us Edmontonians.

We need a great strategy to achieve an amazing vision. On February 23rd Utility Committee will be discussing a new strategy for Edmonton's Waste Management. We cannot lose our nerve because of past setbacks and we must continue to be ambitious, stay focused on innovation, and work on getting our game back.