Behind Edmonton’s push toward zero waste: A Q&A with Mayor Don Iveson

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is looking to export the Canadian city's recycling model, starting in China. (Christopher Swope)

Don Iveson is the mayor of Edmonton, Canada, the northern-most big city in North America. Edmonton has been experiencing a boom related to its role as a supplies and logistics hub for Canada’s oil sands region. But there’s something else Iveson wants Edmonton to be known around the world for: how it handles its trash.

Edmonton has found a path to recycling or composting nearly all of its waste. As Iveson tells it, it’s a story of technological innovation, business partnerships, academic research and citizen engagement. In order to export its model to other cities, Edmonton has formed its own company, which is now making its first deals in China.

Iveson, who is 35, was elected mayor in 2013 after serving six years on the Edmonton City Council. I caught up with him this week at the ICLEI World Congress in Seoul. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: How did Edmonton get to be so advanced in how it handles its trash?

Mayor Don Iveson: I’ll start with the general narrative. Most Edmontonians are no more than one or two generations off the farm. We come off the Midwestern part of the Canadian prairies, a food-growing area. Until oil was discovered two generations ago, it was the poorest part of the country. We were hardworking rural people, codependent for survival, with a strong sense of community. The culture is extremely collaborative. Now it’s a global city — one-third of the people are from outside of Canada. But people fold into the culture. It’s very enterprising but still very community-minded. We think of ourselves as problem solvers.

About 30 years ago we figured out we were running out of landfill space. We had maybe 10 years of landfill left, and we couldn’t identify another place to bury our garbage. And it was going to be prohibitively expensive to ship it far away. There were no immediate solutions.

Q: What did the city do?

A: It triggered a really interesting set of problem solving within our city staff. Which then demanded some very strong vision from the city council to make some very costly investments in tooling up, first to do curbside recycling.

Edmonton was the first city in Canada to do curbside recycling. As an immediate solution, that diverted 30 percent of the waste stream. This was 27 years ago. That bought us some time. And with that time, we started to work with partners from industry and partners from research — the University of Alberta created the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence. And we started looking at different things we could do to prolong the use of our one last landfill.

“Eight-year old school kids all come and tour the [recycling] facility. … This is how we get the very high compliance rates.”

Recycling was low-hanging fruit, because it’s sort of understood and it’s easy to communicate to your citizens. And again, we’re very fortunate that we have citizens who want to participate. We get above-90 percent participation from our citizens in sortation. And that made a huge difference right away.

Q: So what came next?

A: The next step was, through a public-private partnership, we built our composter, which takes the black-bag streams — everything that’s not separated by the citizens. That material comes in, and through an industrial process we take another third out of the total and turn it into recoverable compost. We’re able to sell it as a commodity. People buy it for 6 bucks a bag because it’s good for your plants.

But in order for that to work, you can imagine how many batteries, cans of paint and other toxic materials go into the system. So again we had to work with our citizens, which comes to the social marketing piece of this — we made it very easy for citizens to divert their household hazardous waste at eco-stations we have set up. We also have a private partner that mines this waste for precious metals and recovers the value from the electronic waste.

So overall it’s a very integrated approach and it requires a lot of participation from citizens.

And the way to make this work is that 8-year old school kids all come and tour the facility. Their instinct is to do the right thing. And so we show them how to do the right thing because it’s very simple, and we ask them to take the message home to their parents. So now a generation of kids has gone through this. This is how we get the very high compliance rates.

Q: What’s left in the waste stream to deal with?

A: The last frontier for us is the last stream of waste that’s non-recyclable and non-compostable. We’ve got a partnership with a Quebec company, and this came out of research we participated in — it gets shredded, dried and put into what I call a garbage refinery. The proper name is a waste-to-energy biofuel reactor and converter, and the waste gets turned into methanol and ethanol. It’s not an incineration process. It’s a very efficient petrochemical process that recovers the energy value in that remnant waste. That plant is coming online this year and will take us to 90 percent diversion, without using incineration.

A whole other thing we’re doing is creating a closed-loop system with paper. There’s a company called Greys Paper Recycling. Their first pilot plant is in India, but they heard about us and thought we’d be a good partner to work with to commercialize their technology. The first full production plant is in our city and it uses the same wood fibers over and over, so you can stop cutting down trees. You use your paper, put it in the recycling bin and close the loop. It goes back to the plant, it gets processed, value gets added through chemistry. We’re the test customer right now. It still needs to pass inspection in our photocopiers. But again, it’s building this economic cluster and looking at municipal waste as a resource, rather than just digging holes in the ground to bury it.

Q: And you’ve started a company to export this model?

A: Yes, it’s called Waste RE-solutions Edmonton. We’re trying to get entrepreneurial with what we’ve built with our private-sector partners and take that out to the world for cities looking for an off-the-shelf solution that is still tailored to their particular community needs. Our first project is in China. I can’t yet say what cities we are working with, but I may be able to soon.

“In a lot of developing economies, there is an informal economy built around waste recovery. … How do you employ those people in helping to achieve the outcomes?”

The city is the sole shareholder of Waste RE-solutions Edmonton. It’s what we call a controlled corporation — it’s a limited-liability for-profit corporation with a board of directors who the city council appointed late last year. It can do business anywhere in the world, but in order to do business in China you need to have a local joint-venture partner. So we have a Chinese joint venture as well. We’ve put about $3.5 million into this over three years, with the expectation that we’ll have revenue coming in toward the end of that period.

Q: What exactly are you selling?

A: Integration is the secret sauce. It’s the citizen participation. It’s bringing the private-sector folks together. It’s also a bunch of technical expertise we’ve accumulated over time. Now that we’ve built our system, we have these folks who’ve done it and can add value to these waste systems being built in the megacities of the world.  

Our objective, obviously, is we’d like to create a return from this and a sustainable and growing business model. But we also think this is a real way we can contribute to global sustainability.

Q: What about your model is easily transferable and what needs to be changed for the local context?

A: A lot of the technology itself, the industrial machinery of it, will be transferable. But the waste streams are different in different places. If it’s got more oil in it, or if it’s drier or wetter, that can affect the kinds of technologies you use. That all has technical solutions to it.

The more interesting questions are around doing the social marketing in other cultures. And the other question is, in a lot of developing economies there is an informal economy built around waste recovery. So how do you not disrupt that sortation that’s happening on a microeconomic basis by trying to industrialize that process and put a lot of people out of work right away? How do you employ those people in helping to achieve the outcomes? That’s where the really interesting part of this is. We may have some of the answers, but the local partners who know the community and the local economy are integral to fitting the technical solutions to their local economic and cultural conditions.

Q: Is it common for cities in Canada to own companies like this?

A: I wouldn’t say common, but we have some experience with it. We were forced in the mid-1990s by a regulatory decision above us to privatize our water and power company. That has grown into a $2 billion-a-year company called EPCOR. It’s primarily a water and wastewater company. It serves the local area, but we’re also building the wastewater-treatment plants in Regina, a smaller city east of us. We’ve got assets in Nevada and Arizona and a bit of business in British Columbia and a few other places. So we’ve done this before. It’s a mix of enterprise and community — these are essentially giant social enterprises. They make money but they do good. It’s a very business-oriented approach to trying to do the right thing for sustainability.

Q: Local governments in Canada don’t have many tools to raise revenue. Are these business spinoffs a way to diversify your revenue streams?

A: You’re absolutely right. Having revenue from these enterprises helps offset our reliance on property taxes. EPCOR contributes a $141 million dividend per year into our annual budget. That’s our take. Our property taxes would be 11 percent higher if we didn’t own that utility company. Yes, we’d be really happy if our Waste RE-solutions company grew and was able to provide additional revenue.

We’re going to up our game doing work around the world. That creates opportunities for businesses in Edmonton that have grown up around this and for research at our university. It all feeds back into an innovation-, entrepreneurship- and civic-minded system. And that’s linking back to the values we started out at. We don’t raise barns anymore. We do things like this.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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