We should be more like Edmonton
April 22, 2015 | Posted by: Natalie Wellings
Toronto doesn't wear its green badge on its sleeve - we leave that to Vancouver - but there's a lot to be proud of when it comes to our environmental initiatives.
There aren't many other Canadian cities, for instance, that have a functioning Green Bin program, let alone one that returns the finished compost back to residents free of charge at regularly scheduled Environment Days. And what other city boasts the ability to air-condition almost all of its downtown core during the summer, skyscrapers included, with borrowed lake water?
When compared to, say, Calgary - which just learned how to recycle two years ago - Toronto looks pretty good. Yes, it's transitioned from a transit-loving mayor to a carloving, gravy-hating mayor, meaning a lot of city-run green initiatives are on the chopping block, but as long as the Toronto Environment Office continues to exist, tangible progress should be made.
Having said this, another Canadian city is quietly outshining Toronto when it comes to truly innovative environmental practices. It's a city that, ironically, is neighbours with oh-hey-we-just-started-this recycling-thing Calgary. It's also considered the corporate base for those working in Alberta's tar sands and, earlier this year, it was named the homicide capital of Canada. Yes, we're talking about Edmonton.
It gets a bad reputation, if it gets any at all, but the city has a unique political advantage when it comes to the environment: It forms a left-leaning, NDP-voting pocket in an otherwise Conservative-voting province, and when it receives money from the Alberta government, which is wealthy enough to give at least some cash to its urban centres, Edmonton's council often allocates these funds to green initiatives.
One of these is the revitalization of the North Saskatchewan River Valley, which runs through the middle of Edmonton and - at 48 kilometres, with 22 parks along its route - represents the largest expanse of urban parkland in North America. In fact, there's a staff of eight urban park rangers enlisted to protect it. Like most rangers, their job is to protect people from nature, and nature from people (although this team must contend with more drunken inline skaters than lost hikers).
What's noteworthy, however, is that Edmonton actually puts aside money to ensure full-time supervision of its parks system, unlike Toronto, which has numerous volunteer associations dedicated to preserving the Don Valley river and ravines but limited resources devoted to monitoring any of it. Part of the reason may be that while Toronto tends to view its waterways as just one of its many natural features, Edmonton considers its so-called 'Green Ribbon' to be part of its soul.
'We're constantly telling people, 'This is the jewel of our city,' ' says Greg Komarniski, leader of the urban park ranger program in Edmonton. 'We're immensely proud of it. The health of the river valley is not only important, it's very emblematic of who we are, what we're all about.'
The city isn't just giving money to its physical green space. Much of Edmonton's financial support is reserved for less glamorous initiatives, usually involving garbage, and this is where it seriously goes over the top: Consider the Waste Management Centre of Excellence - an entire organization devoted to nothing but the pursuit of excellence within the field of trash.
It really is quite something to behold - and it should be noted that absolutely anyone can behold it, for free, usually with a guided tour thrown in and sometimes even a complimentary shuttle bus from downtown, because there's a policy around full transparency.
Within a single compound, there exists: A solid waste sorting facility, research and development labs (right now, they're looking into composting drywall), recycling plants for both household waste and construction/demolition waste, the largest co-composting facility in North America, an e-waste recycling factory, an Eco Station for drop-offs of hazardous waste and bulky items, a landfill with a built-in gas recovery system to capture and convert methane into electricity, a leachate treatment plant, a biosolids storage lagoon system and an education centre.
That's not all. Under construction is a waste-to-biofuels facility, the only one of its kind in the world, which will bump up Edmonton's diversion rate to more than 90% - as in, 90% of its garbage not going to landfill. When operating, it will convert 100,000 tonnes each year of non-recyclable and non-compostable waste into 36 million litres of ethanol, reducing Alberta's CO 2 output by reducing Alberta's CO 2 output by more than six million tonnes over the next 25 years and creating 180 green jobs.
Oh, and that remaining 10% comes from the leftover char at the biofuels facility, which could be used to pave local roads, meaning it's possible the city will hit a 100% waste diversion rate.
This project is being funded by the City of Edmonton, the Government of Alberta and Enerkem Alberta Biofuels, making it the latest in a string of successful public-private partnerships at the WMC. This type of arrangement - to which Torontonians often put up a fair amount of resistance, at least until there's a three month-long garbage strike in the middle of a hot summer - is precisely what Edmonton relies upon to remain competitive, innovative and profitable in the green sector.
'I definitely wouldn't say that we're innovative because we have more funds than other cities,' says Connie Boyce, a representative for Edmonton's waste management services. 'We're just as stretched for dollars as any other city. The reason we're innovative and have achieved what we have is due to private investment.'
But it's also about perspective: Instead of looking at trash as something useless, the people of Edmonton began realizing a while ago that it can be something profitable - there's value, after all, in those empty glass bottles, broken computers and even an unfinished doughnut. Furthermore, a lot of money is saved when there are fewer trucks having to collect and transport waste to a landfill.
'We have strong leadership here and a general willingness to be progressive and green,' Boyce says, 'but public engagement has been an integral part of our system from the beginning.'
Here in Toronto, there is plenty of demand for progressive environmental initiatives and even greater demand for the kind that might save us money, whether it applies to our waste (does anyone know where it goes these days?) or the Don River and surrounding parks system. The environment may not be a priority on Rob Ford's agenda, but co-operation between city council, the private sector and the general public - with transparency as the name of the game - could lead to huge steps forward.