Turning trash to gold is the way of the future

Garbage Truck - p Gordon

By MAURA FORREST

July 3, 2014

Garbage could be one of the most abundant renewable resources on the market, and there are many ways to turn it into profit.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from Navigant Research. The report estimates that global revenue from using “smart technology” to treat municipal solid waste will nearly triple over the next decade, from $2.3 billion annually in 2014 to $6.5 billion in 2023.

This “smart technology” includes more environmentally friendly ways of processing garbage, by removing recyclables and composting organic waste.

It also refers to a growing waste-to-energy industry that encompasses a range of technologies. Garbage can be burned to generate electricity and heat or passed through an anaerobic digester to make a biogas that can be used in place of natural gas.

The report suggests that the need to find alternatives to conventional landfills will drive innovation in waste treatment. It estimates that globally, we will produce 50 per cent more garbage a decade from now than we do today.

But it might be premature to suggest that we are prepared to deal with such a massive amount of waste using green technology.

A 2012 World Bank study found that city dwellers were producing twice as much garbage as they had 10 years before, and will produce twice as much again by 2025.

A lot of that growth is coming from developing countries, where the cost of processing municipal solid waste is expected to increase up to five times in the next 10 years. In those places, new technologies with significant capital costs may simply not be viable.

Even among industrialized nations, there is substantial variation in the way municipal waste is handled.

A 2013 Conference Board of Canada review ranked Canada last out of 17 industrialized nations for its track record on municipal waste. It found that Canada produces 777 kilograms of garbage per capita each year – twice as much as Japan, the top-ranking country. And most of that waste still goes to landfills.

But there are some Canadian companies and municipalities that are capitalizing on garbage’s potential. Halifax sells organic waste from roadside compost pickup to farms and landscapers. Both Ontario and B.C. have anaerobic digesting facilities that generate electricity and biogas from food waste.

And Montreal-based Enerkem is building a commercial-scale plant in Edmonton that will gasify garbage to produce ethanol. The plant is expected to be operational later this year.

Still, if Canada is take part in the global growth in revenue from municipal garbage, it will need something better than a piecemeal approach to waste management.



Photo Credit: p. Gordon