Converting waste to profits

Converting waste to profits

Note: This blog was written in collaboration with Lynda O’Malley.

One of the aspects of innovation that I find most captivating is the market development that it drives. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history: as new technologies are developed competitors enter the space, creating and expanding markets.

Sometimes the markets developed aren’t just for the technologies, but for its inputs and raw materials. One such market that is experiencing exponential growth today is the use of waste materials in a variety of processes, including recycling materials, repurposing components and recapturing energy.

According to Navigant Research, the world generated two billion tons of municipal solid waste in 2011. Increasing population density, especially in urban centres, as well as rising affluence will propel this number higher over the coming decade. Currently, nearly three-quarters of waste globally ends up in landfill sites.

World municipal solid waste management by disposal method from Navigant Research’s Waste-to-Energy Technology Markets Executive Summary


The basics

We’ve already seen increasing demand for waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies that convert waste to heat and electricity. WTE technologies include any technology that converts waste to heat and electricity; the three main technology segments include combustion, gasification and anaerobic digestion. The market for WTE technologies is projected to reach $29.2 billion by 2022, up from $6.2 billion in 2012 (Navigant Research). Currently we have eight WTE facilities in Canada, which consume 3% of our waste. By comparison, Asia has 301 facilities and Europe has 388 (Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition). WTE plants will treat a minimum of 261 million tons of waste annually by 2022 (Navigant Research), and although this doesn’t account for all of the global waste produced, it’s a significant step in the right direction.

Norway offers a great illustration of how what a few years ago was quite literally waste is now a commodity sought after by companies. In Norway they are currently importing garbage from the United Kingdom to feed their WTE plants because their domestic supply isn’t able to keep up. It should also be noted that Norway has an amazing recycling system that increasingly diverts recoverable materials from landfill waste streams. Northern Europe produces garbage at a rate of 150 million tons annually, while their WTE plants can consume upward of 700 million tons.

Harvesting pollution

Ontario’s own Pond Biofuels, a MaRS cleantech company, has developed a way of harnessing greenhouse gas emissions, the very definition of an industrial waste product, and turning them into algae, which can be further refined to produce biodiesel. Pond Biofuels’ biodiesel has met all of the required standards, making it a competitor to conventional fuel made from soybeans or other oilseed crops.

Pond Biofuels’ strategy not only helps industries drastically clean up their emissions, but it also provides an eco-friendly alternative to oil-based fuels. Pond Biofuels just announced a $19-million pilot plant in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada to further prove its technology. Hopefully we’ll be seeing its deployment around the world in the coming years.

Waste management hierarchy from Yukon Energy Charrette’s Waste to Energy Background Paper


Blue-bin gold mine

Another MaRS cleantech company, GreenMantra Technologies, is able to produce commercial grade waxes from plastic waste. North America consumes three billion pounds of waxes a year. The largest consumer of waxes is the packaging industry, which represents about 30% of the market; however, waxes are found in just about every product in one way or another, including roads, tires, wood products and polishes (American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers).

GreenMantra is working with the City of Vancouver during their demonstration of a new mix asphalt, which uses about 1% by weight wax in order to make it more fluid. This new type of asphalt requires less energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. GreenMantra is also building out its ability to turn plastic waste into diesel and grease, in addition to waxes.

As technology continues to evolve and the global drive for sustainability grows we’ll continue to see increased demand for waste materials to be used in a variety of processes, whether to generate new materials or energy. I’m looking forward to hearing more stories like Norway’s and learning about more companies like Pond Biofuels, as more people realize that it’s economically advantageous to clean up waste.