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Alberta Green: How the Private Sector is Innovating Sustainability

Four Edmonton companies share what they’re doing for the environment, and the impact their practices and programs are having here and around the world

CN's EcoConnexions makes a difference. Photo courtesy of Canadian National Railway Company.

Alberta has long held a reputation of being environmentally unfriendly but, if private enterprise around its capital has any say, the reputation should be reconsidered. Everything from innovative sustainable business practices to scientific discoveries in reclamation are happening in and around the city right now. Four such businesses talked with Business in Edmonton magazine about their practices and projects, giving us a glimpse into an Alberta that’s greener and looking to the future.


Constructing Edmonton’s Future

For PCL Construction, Canada’s largest contractor, waste is a major issue. In fact, construction waste is the single largest contributor to landfills. Cutting that down is an important step in creating more efficient, better projects, and thinking about Alberta’s future.

“As the largest contractor in Canada, we are in a unique position to help change the industry’s mindset related to sustainable business practices,” says Rob Otway, PCL vice president and district manager. “By working with our trade partners and suppliers, we are able to make these changes in a way that makes economic sense and will help the entire industry.”

Last year, PCL made a promise to divert 90 per cent of its Edmonton building construction waste. One year later, they managed to beat their target, now diverting 95 per cent of its waste with the help of their partner, GFL Environmental Inc.

Looking forward, the company is already using new technology and designs to build differently in Edmonton’s downtown.

“We are revitalizing an older tower in downtown Edmonton. Instead of tearing it down, we are exploring ways to turn it into a modern, state-of-the-art office building,” Otway explains. “From an environmental perspective, 95 per cent of the building components will be recycled, and the building will use less electricity and gas owing to updated technology.”


Breaking it Down, Responsibly

Reducing construction waste is an important aspect of building Edmonton’s future but Travis Blake, president of R3 Deconstruction & Demolition, is focused more on deconstruction. His company, one of Canada’s fastest-growing businesses, has always been conscious of their environmental footprint. When they first started, however, wearing their environmental interests on their sleeves made for some unexpected challenges.

“Our clients weren’t initially interested in that,” Blake explains. “I spent a lot of time explaining that we aren’t just an environmentally-focused demolition company. We compete in the space like everyone else but, in our process, we are going to lessen the environmental footprint. We had to tone our message down and still go about demolition and deconstruction under our own umbrella of sustainability.”

The solution: change their practices, find the balance between environmental and economic drivers, and do what they can. That meant breaking down the traditional ways demolition was handled and instead, deconstructing spaces with an eye for what can be reused and recycled.

“I want to bring about change and be a positive disruptor,” Blake explains. “Our approach and brand is in the deconstruction – the taking it apart, the sorting it and separating as much as we can. That is important because it is ‘as much as we can.’ Not every project is pretty. Not every project are we able to sort and separate as much as we like.”

Blake is quick to mention that his company does not recycle and reuse on their own. They are part of a network of local businesses that all help each other lessen their footprint. “We have partnered with smaller owner-operated businesses who have a great business model of repurposing second-hand materials,” Blake says. “They come onto our sites and we help them take products and materials out to keep them out of the landfill. We don’t look to make money off of it, either. It supports a small business that’s really doing a great service for our city.”

It isn’t just about small businesses, either. R3 has also partnered with local non-profits to help push the recycling and reusing aspect of their business. Recently, the company was deconstructing an office space that was still fully furnished. Instead of sending it all to the landfill, Blake called the iHuman Youth Society. “We got everything down and managed to fully furnish their new office, top to bottom,” Blake says. “We kept everything out of the landfill and it’s being used every day by at-risk youth. It was one phone call. That’s how it happens.”


Working with the Community

Combining smart business practices with outreach is at the centre of CN’s approach to environmentalism and sustainability. In 2011, the rail giant launched “EcoConnexions,” an employee engagement program that’s focused on implementing better, more sustainable business practices.

“EcoConnexions is focused on embedding environmental sustainability into our culture,” explains Chantale Després, CN’s director of sustainability. “It includes targeted initiatives to reduce energy consumption, reduce waste and improve housekeeping practices at our yards and offices.” The program complements CN’s commitment to more efficient infrastructure and practices that cut down on fuel consumption, and uses big data to analyze how trains can be run more efficiently.

Since launching, EcoConnexions has reduced energy consumption by 22 per cent at key yards and facilities, diverted over 90,000 metric tonnes of CN’s operational waste from landfills and launched a second phase, “From the Ground Up.” The new program is focused entirely on planting trees in the communities where CN operates.

“Over 1.6 million trees have been planted since 2012,” Després says, “making CN the leading private non-forestry company tree planter in Canada.”


Homegrown Solutions is Making their Way Around the World

In a section of land by Nutrien’s Fort Saskatchewan plant, Connie Nichol is working with the University of Alberta to solve the problem of phosphogypsum (PG) stacks, a common by-product of fertilizer production. Traditionally, PG stack reclamation involves contouring the piles, covering with soil and seeding to a grass mixture. Nichol and Nutrien hoped to do something better.

This led to the company connecting with graduate students at the University of Alberta to research alternatives. Together with Nichol, students have been growing a literal forest and tracking growth on the stacks. “Our first joint research project was in 2005,” Nichol explains. “It is such a great approach to solving some of the industry’s questions. Apply a scientific approach to it.”

The results have been impressive. Nichol has discovered that trees grow much faster on the stacks and has experimented with many different plants. What started as waste is now a forest, complete with local fauna coming back to the area. “We evolved over the period of the research to looking at current locations and which grass species would do best to what we do today, which is basically creating soil and growing things right on the stacks.”

Nichol says plans are in motion to try the experiments in different parts around the world, leading to a potential global change in how PG stacks are reclaimed.


Alberta’s Green Future

Companies in Edmonton and across Canada are breaking down the old way of doing things and finding newer, more sustainable ways to run their businesses and contribute to their communities. From looking at construction and demolition waste differently to literally growing new ways of making spaces greener, a focus on the environment is leading to impressive innovations, a greener Alberta, and helping the bottom line.