From Curb to Fuel: ​ Edmonton's Waste-to-Biofuels and Chemicals Facility, official video by the City of Edmonton.

In a recent interview, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson called waste management a “sexy” topic for Edmontonians.

Hey, we’re all a little loopy after such a long winter.

But surprisingly, there’s reason to believe Mayor Iveson is not just suffering from an acute neurological condition. His city’s cutting-edge waste-to-biofuel facility creates liquid methanol and will soon be diverting almost all of the city’s waste away from landfill. It’s the first such facility in the world and it’s now fully operational within the Edmonton Waste Management Centre.

The methanol will serve a variety of local uses. Windshield washer fluid, for example. And as a component of gasoline. A local chemical company has also expressed interest in purchasing a significant portion of the biofuel.

The plant will process an impressive 100,000 tonnes of solid waste annually, taking in everything from wood to roof shingles, and turning it into 38 million litres of methanol. That’s enough to fuel 400,000 cars with the standard 5 per cent blend of ethanol.

Edmonton’s breakthrough will almost certainly become standard practice in major cities across North America, as it addresses two problems at once: landfill space and carbon dioxide emissions.

As an added bonus, the process also captures heavy metals which would otherwise present a significant risk of water contamination. At 90 per cent waste diversion efficiency, Edmonton will move easily into the position of North America’s highest such rate.

So yeah, it’s at least a little bit sexy.

As a society, we’ve worked very hard – and been very successful – at removing waste from the public eye.

Mayor Iveson’s comments may have been off the cuff, but they cut to the heart of the essential formula for a progressive and sustainable waste management system. As a society, we’ve worked very hard – and been very successful – at removing waste from the public eye. Out of sight, out of mind. In cases where the problem itself is either taboo or mostly invisible, the solution needs sex appeal; it needs to make the public feel sufficiently good about themselves that they are willing to overlook how much they don’t want to talk about the subject matter.

Toilets, to grab one example, have long suffered from this problem. Using potable water to flush a toilet is a senseless waste, but none of the many proposed alternatives have been intriguing enough to thrust human waste into the centre of our public dialogue. And so we continue to misuse resources.

A waste-to-biofuel project, however, is big, sustainable and avant garde in a way that many previous initiatives have failed to be. One can certainly understand why Edmontonians would be enthralled, since the project hums along at almost no additional cost to them. The cost of the biofuels facility is approximately $75 per tonne, versus $70 per tonne for conventional landfill operations. That’s far less than one dollar per person per year.

That being said, we’re not likely to see a municipal waste-to-energy plant pop up in a town like St. Andrews, New Brunswick, any time soon. Although day-to-day operations are carried out inexpensively, construction costs begin at $100-million, which is enough to stop most inquiries in their tracks.

But the price tag is no reason to think any less of Edmonton’s bold new venture. A worthwhile project hardly needs to be universally applicable. For the many cities for which similar undertakings are within reach, logistical feasibility studies will surely be already underway. Let’s hope they’re learning the right lessons. 

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