Saturday, October 6, 2012

Edmonton Waste Management

Last week I went on a field trip with my fourth-grader to the impressive Edmonton Waste Management Centre (you can take a photo tour at the link; the photo is one I snapped with my phone of beautifully-designed posters inside their theatre where the tour begins). It used to be the Cloverbar landfill site, but over the years has morphed into a collection of buildings that includes North America's largest composter, a facility for sorting and baling recyclables from Edmonton's widely-admired recycling program, a paper recycling plant, and an electronics recycling facility beside the rapidly-shrinking former TV-henge. The sorting facility where organics are separated from the rest of the garbage bound from landfill will soon also boast a machine that crushes most of the debris into fluff to be used for gasification, with the ethanol and methanol from that process to be used to run the garbage trucks and the amount going to landfill to be reduced to about 10% of what comes in. The landfill itself, now closed, is being prepared to become a park, and items for landfill are currently shipped about 80km outside city limits. Time constraints meant we missed out on seeing the construction debris recycling facility.

On the whole, the tour was fascinating, and mostly conducted from the safety of enclosed overhead walkways. I was dumbfounded that the piles of stuff still being sent to landfill at this point looked like they were about half plastic that should have been recyclable, even with our city's enviable participation rate in the recycling program. I imagine it's much worse in other municipalities. The other thing that sticks with me is the worker at the electronics recycling plant starting decontamination before he left the floor of the warehouse at a shoe-washing station beside the door into the locker rooms. The hazardous-materials safety protocols also require them to wear a double layer of jumpsuit, helmet, gloves, eye protection, and heavy-duty dust masks.

The whole experience left me feeling conflicted - I am proud of our city for going to such lengths to keep things out of landfill and recover useful resources, but at the same time, I wonder if residents subconsciously use that to justify continuing to buy disposable items that in the long run are trashing the planet in other ways. I'm even more determined to consume less stuff now - especially since most of the machinery involved in sorting and disposing of our waste is pretty energy-intensive, and will become even more so once the gasification facility opens.

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