By leveraging innovative waste conversion technology and implementing award-winning solutions, the City of Edmonton is reaping sound benefits for its people and environment.

By Marie-Helene Labrie

The etymology of an often repeated English idiom rings true more than ever in today’s pursuit of one’s benefit and gain. The evolution of the phrase has varied, with earliest instances appearing in the New Testament, “A sin to one is a blessing to another,” to Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, “One man’s meat is another’s poison.” Perhaps the first instance of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” was in a business context that appeared in 1707 in A General Treatise of Monies and Exchanges: “One Man’s loss becomes another Man’s gain.”

Trash surrounds us wherever we look, wherever we go, meaning treasures abound and wealth can follow. Enter the Circular Economy. Around the globe, 1.3 billion tons of trash are generated each year and 70 percent are either landfilled or incinerated. Collective efforts and new technologies are helping to divert more garbage from landfills and incineration.

The Evolution of Alternative Fuel Sources

The evolution of alternative fuel sources was sparked by the need to reduce dependence on oil, offset greenhouse gas emissions as well as to diversify energy sources. Renewable biofuels for transportation represent a key source of diversification from petroleum-based products.

Among new solutions are advanced thermochemical technologies such as the one developed by Enerkem, a Canadian company that has harnessed the meaning of the saying in earnest, by transforming waste into high-value biofuels and renewable chemicals.

The technology is based on an integrated chemical recycling process that converts carbon-rich solid waste materials into a clean and stable synthetic gas. This gas is then turned into liquid value-add products using catalysts. In less than five minutes, the non-recyclable trash (heterogeneous waste stream traditionally destined to landfill or incineration) is converted into methanol and ethanol and becomes a sought after treasure—these chemicals can be used as low carbon transportation fuels or as renewable chemicals to green our everyday products.

Demand for renewable transportation fuels and chemicals is significant and global. Governments worldwide are mandating the use of renewables in the conventional fuel pool. According to Biofuels Digest in 2016, 64 countries have renewables targets or mandates. Ethanol is the most popular biofuel around the world. It is a biodegradable alcohol that displaces a portion of the gasoline we use to fuel our cars and serves as an oxygenate given its high octane level. By producing ethanol from non-recyclable waste, it is not only possible to reduce greenhouse emissions in the transportation sector, but it also further reduces the volume of waste being landfilled or incinerated and complements upstream waste management activities such as recycling and composting.

Edmonton: From Trash to Treasure

One North American city is dealing with its waste management challenges head on. Edmonton is Alberta’s second-largest city and Canada’s fifth-largest municipality with a population of 1.3 million in the greater metropolitan area and has recently been named Canada’s fastest growing city by Census Canada. Approximately 40 percent of waste generated in Edmonton comes from the residential sector. The City of Edmonton collects about 645 pounds of trash per capita each year from more than 370,000 single and multi-family homes. This waste material is processed at the state-of-the-art Edmonton Waste Management Centre, where it is recycled, composted and now also converted into value-add biochemicals and biofuels.

Under the leadership of Edmonton’s forward-looking mayor, Don Iveson, the city continues to make impressive gains in its environmental stewardship and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the city’s environmental strategic plan, The Way We Green, some of Edmonton’s goals directly aim to bolster reuse, recycling, backyard composting, “grasscycling” (leaving grass clippings on the lawn after mowing) and safe household hazardous waste disposal. In 2014, as part of a comprehensive municipal waste-to-biofuels initiative and in collaboration with Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, and Canadian biofuels producer Enerkem, the City of Edmonton announced the inauguration of Enerkem Alberta Biofuels. This first of its kind commercial-scale waste–to-biofuels facility, owned and operated by Enerkem, turns non-recyclable and non-compostable household garbage into biofuels and biochemicals.

The initiative delivers both environmental and economic benefits in addition to increasing waste diversion and supports the growing demand for biofuels and the need to transition to a greener and more circular economy. The overall initiative also includes a waste preparation facility and an advanced energy research facility.

From a Linear Economy to a Circular One

Retail product manufacturers are also looking for solutions to green their products. One of the key elements in reducing the carbon footprint of everyday products is to use renewable chemicals in producing them. Using waste as a feedstock for the production of chemicals, such as methanol for example, rather than fossil sources is a way to reduce the footprint of products and to transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. The trash-to-treasure model.

With waste volumes continuously growing and compounding global climate and economic challenges, society needs disruptive innovation that turns problems into effective and clean solutions. These innovations, when combined with the vision of municipal leaders who are committed to take concrete actions to develop the economy of tomorrow, make it possible to create sustainable prosperity and growth.

By leveraging innovative technology and implementing award-winning solutions such as those led by Alberta Innovates and other collaborators, the City of Edmonton will reap sound benefits for its people and environment. Enerkem Alberta Biofuels is supporting the City of Edmonton on its way to increase its household waste diversion rate to 90 percent. By making one man’s waste into another man’s solution, the City of Edmonton is a world’s first and a model to replicate around the world.

Marie-Helene Labrie is Senior Vice-President of Government Affairs and Communications for Enerkem (Montreal, QC). She joined Enerkem in May 2008. In this capacity, she oversees all government relations and communications activities globally. In 2016, Marie-Hélène was nominated the Canadian Ambassador of the Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) women’s initiative by the Canadian federal government. She serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Écotech Québec, a cleantech cluster, as well as on the boards of CETEQ (Conseil des entreprises en technologies environnementales du Québec), and the Advanced Biofuels Canada association. She also represents the company on the Advanced Ethanol Council in Washington. From 2015 to 2016, she acted as an expert on the Advanced Biofuels Sub-Group created by the European Commission. Marie-Hélène can be reached at (514) 875-0284, ext. 231 or via e-mail at