For far too long, the climate impact of our consumption and waste has been ignored. Finally, the circular economy approach, which Ontario launched in 2017, tackles our unsustainable take-make-and dispose model and is increasingly accepted as a key framework to drive climate mitigation and reduce a large proportion of our GHG emissions.  Circular economy is economically efficient and encourages more effective use of scarce resources as well as reduced energy demand and fossil fuel avoidance.

In addition to material resource efficiency, recent studies have shown that up to 70% of all emissions could be cut if circular economy policies are implemented. The idea is to sustainably extract our resources and close the loop as long as possible by extending material, packaging and product life spans so that landfilling is the last resort. That being said, we still have a long way to go before all waste can be designed out of our products.

The question is: can energy recovery from waste, which is a hotly debated topic, be part of Ontario’s Circular Economy?

Downstream – Renewable Energy & Alternative Fuels:

Looking downstream, until circular economy policies can drive markets for residual waste, some may argue that it is logical that policies include material/energy recovery as one option for some material which can also have a significant impact on GHG emissions. Waste provides an alternative energy resource that can be extracted through various processes including landfill gas utilization, anaerobic digester biogas or refuse derived alternative fuels.

The European Commission’s recent position on this topic is that “waste-to-energy processes can play a role in the transition to a circular economy provided that the waste hierarchy is used as a guiding principle and that choices made do not inhibit higher levels of prevention, reuse and recycling.” As such, residual wastes destined for landfill as a final option should be recovered and used to generate low carbon fuels or alternative fuels.

In March 2017, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) announced that it would be launching a process to develop a clean fuel standard (CFS) and could drive low carbon fuel markets across the country. The standard is intended to promote the creation of lower carbon fuels, including market-based approaches like crediting and trading.

 Cement Industry Alternative Fuel Targets:

According to the International Energy Association, alternative fuels can be 20 to 25% less carbon-intensive than traditional fossil fuels and can help reduce the cement industry’s carbon footprint which accounts for 5% of man-made emissions.  That being said, such alternative fuels should only be an option if recycling markets are not mature enough and if the materials were already destined for landfill.

With several carbon pricing initiatives across Canada, including Ontario’s Cap & Trade scheme, cement producers are actively seeking low carbon fuels to reduce the sector’s sizable GHG emissions. Alternative fuels from waste, such as shingles, railway tires, tire fluff, textiles, MRF residue, wood products and renovation/demolition waste provide the industry an opportunity to lower costs while reducing GHG emissions.

According to the Cement Association of Canada, 98% of fuel for cement manufacturing in Ontario is derived from coal and petcoke.  In an effort to reduce GHG emissions, the cement industry in Canada has targeted a 20% reduction in coal by 2021. Global cement giant Lafarge is looking to replace 30 to 50% of its fossil fuel use at all Canadian plants with low carbon fuels by 2020.  It will henceforth be key for Lafarge and other cement producers to secure their alternative fuel feedstock by engaging the waste sector accordingly.

Equally as important is for governments to consider policy and regulatory support for energy-from-waste, as a better alternative to landfilling as per the waste hierarchy.   Reducing consumption and waste generation, and increasing reuse and recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and our circular economy focus should be on driving incentives and markets upstream.

Yet as we seek to develop a circular economy, it is also important that we consider market maturity for various materials in our planning.  Energy from waste should only be considered for those materials that can’t be used any other way up the hierarchy, at least over the short to medium term.  As such, we must take a phased approach to circular economy development by looking to engage industry both upstream and downstream while seeking to reduce our resource and fossil fuel consumption as a critical part of fighting climate change.