Recycling Creates New Purpose
Natural Resources Imagine being able to turn waste into high value products that our society needs and uses every day.
Question: What Albertan innovations are setting the stage for a new recycling era?
Answer: New technologies developed to address waste from the farming and forestry industries are making their mark.
Thanks to advances in bio technology and a crop of bright minds, that’s exactly what is happening. And Alberta, with its abundance of farm- land and forests, along with a rich history of expertise in the oil and gas sector, is the perfect place for these new technologies to be developed.
David Bressler, an asssociate professor at the University of Alberta, and director of the Bio Refining Conversions Network, is one of those leading the development of innovative products in ways that many would consider the stuff of science fiction.
A new purpose
Take for instance discarded cattle parts. Historically this was used as animal feed, but since the first case of BSE in Alberta, almost 10 years ago, producers have been forced to dispose of it in landfills, because of the risk of transmitting mad cow disease. Bressler discovered a way to extract proteins from this material and is now turning it into bio- fuels and plastics. “More than 500 tonnes of cow parts a week are sent to landfills, at a cost to producers, but now they can get value from that waste,” he says.
And it’s not just cattle waste that is finding new life in everyday pro- ducts. Spent poultry feathers are turned into food grade packaging, and used vegetable oil from res- taurants are being morphed in- to plastics. And bio-mass—straw, wood, and manure—all of which is abundant in Alberta are processed into bio-fuel, fertilizer and plastics.
“It’s exciting to be at the leading edge of this scientific wave, where the tools of bio-chemistry are being used to make high value pro- ducts,” says Bressler. “And while there are a lot of environmental benefits to this work, economic sustainability and diversification is really propelling the sector.” The Alberta government has invested millions of dollars in bio tech to find value from agricultural and forestry waste.
Challenging investor incentives
In the coming years, bio-technology will continue to positively influence the way we live, but investment will be the biggest challenge in the near future. “Because the technology is still in its infancy, government isn’t quite sure where to invest,” says Bressler. “And raising venture capital, too, is a challenge, because investors are used to getting a quick re- turn on their investments, but it will take about 15 years to develop many of these technologies before they are ready for commercial application."