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Workers pile cardboard for recycling at Tremco in Toronto. Tremco is attempting to achieve zero waste going to landfill by recycling plastics, metal, wood and cardboard. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Workers pile cardboard for recycling at Tremco in Toronto. Tremco is attempting to achieve zero waste going to landfill by recycling plastics, metal, wood and cardboard. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Sustainability

As dumps fill up, zero-landfill policies take off Add to ...

Tremco Commercial Sealants and Waterproofing doesn't send anything to the dump.

The manufacturing company set out in June, 2008, to make its Toronto factory a zero-landfill facility. In March, the company proudly announced that it had achieved its goal, more than two years ahead of schedule.

"Putting waste to landfill is a problem in Ontario. Landfills are getting filled up. We want to make a contribution to the environment," says Sewnauth Raghunandan, the company's health, safety and environmental manager. He adds, "We have become a lot more efficient in running our business."

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Zero-landfill is an idea that has its roots back in the 1960s, but which has been gaining momentum as dumps fill up and environmental concerns grow. Today, many companies are taking this approach, which can involve various levels of reduction, re-use and recycling.

At Tremco, recycling has been the focal point. The company brought in a series of educational programs and employee incentives to encourage workers to correctly sort waste and ensure that anything recyclable went into an appropriate bin. That sorting is audited weekly to make sure that batches of recyclables are not contaminated with the wrong sort of materials.

The results have been significant. Last year, the company recycled more than 209 tonnes of cardboard, 121 tonnes of pallets, 148 tonnes of steel and 33 tonnes of other scrap metal, as well as smaller volumes of cans, bottles, wood and plastic.

But not everything can be recycled. This plant makes sealants, and that means a lot of chemicals, some of which are not exactly green. Material that is not collected for recycling is sent to cement kilns where it is burned and the heat used to make cement.

Another part of the company's environment program involves finding alternatives for some of these chemicals, in particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be bad for the environment and human health.

"We are looking at our formulations to see if we can replace hazardous materials with non-hazardous materials," says Raghunandan.

Many of these are used as solvents. When sealants are used by a builder, the solvents evaporate, causing the product to cure. Tremco is increasingly switching to water-based curing agents instead of solvents for products. It has cut its use of ethylbenzene from 8600 pounds in 2001 to 2400 pounds in 2009, and will continue to cut VOC volumes as other products, including its popular Tremco 830 outdoor sealant, are converted.

Tremco's achievement comes just as Toronto is being barred from shipping its waste to Michigan. In January, the city started sending all its garbage to a landfill near London, Ont., that it bought in 2007. About 793,000 tonnes of garbage will get dumped into the Green Lane landfill this year, the city estimates. The site is big at 130 hectares, but Toronto estimates it will be full by 2025 unless the city can increase its diversion rate to 70 per cent. If it meets that target through a combination of recycling, its Green Bin municipal composting program and other initiatives, then the landfill will last until 2033.

General Motors is the highest-profile company to adopt a zero-landfill strategy. It began with an engine plant in Flint, Mich., back in 2005. Three years later, the company declared that half of its facilities would be landfill-free by 2010. The company recently announced that it has met its goal with 76 of its facilities being landfill-free. The list includes two GM plants in St. Catharines, Ont.

"We are committed to building sustainable communities where we operate and this is one of the ways we can do that," says Jason Easton, corporate communications co-ordinator for General Motors Canada. "Diverting waste and reducing our environmental impact not only is the right thing to do, there's also some economic benefit, as well. Any time you reduce waste, you are implementing a more efficient system."

Instead of being sold for scrap, parts with minor cosmetic defects are instead sold through outlet stores in the U.S., which allows them to be used instead of recycled, thus saving energy, and also can make for a stronger revenue stream.

Like Tremco, GM puts a significant emphasis on recycling. In a company of its size, such a focus can result in very large quantities of material being diverted from landfill into the recycling system. Last year, that included more than 1.70 million tons of scrap metal, 126,000 tons of wood, 2.8 million gallons of oil and nearly 81,000 tons of cardboard, as well as batteries, plastic, paper and other materials.

But GM also closes the loop on some of its waste materials. At one plant, cardboard shipping materials are recycled into sound absorbing material for the Buick Lacrosse. Sludge from the company's Lansing Grand River plant is used to make plastic for engine shipping containers.

The economic benefit is not insignificant. In addition to avoiding landfill fees, the company since 2007 has created $2.5-billion in revenue from recycling. That's equivalent to the sticker price of more than 90,000 Camaros.

The changes come at a time when municipalities of all sizes are grappling with the size of their garbage heaps. Landfill sites are expensive to construct, and, as Toronto discovered, it's increasingly difficult to find people who want a dump next door. Companies adopting a zero-landfill policy help extend the life of existing landfills, potentially deferring the need for new ones for years.

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Saved from landfill

Solvents

Philip Jessop, professor of inorganic chemistry at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., focuses on developing new, environmentally friendly solvents. His laboratory has come up with several innovative solvents that could, for example, replace toxic hexane from soybean oil production. The latest is a solvent that combines with water when carbon dioxide is added, and separates when carbon dioxide is removed.

The newest of these "switchable-hydrophilicity solvents," described in the March issue of the journal Green Chemistry, uses cheaper, more available materials than previous switchable solvents, and could be used to break down polystyrene foam for recycling.

Tires

Scrap tires have long been an environmental problem, particularly when stockpiles catch fire. But researchers in the civil and mechanical engineering departments at Harran University in Turkey may have found a solution. They have been investigating how well scrap tires perform as insulation when added to concrete as a building material.

They replaced about a quarter of the sand used in a concrete mix with rubber from tires and built a room out of the materials, then tested its performance outside for a year, compared with a similar room made from conventional concrete. The rubberized concrete smoothed out temperature fluctuations, giving the room a more stable, comfortable temperature and proving tires to be a good insulating additive.

The study was published in the March issue of Energy and Buildings.

Glass

Atlas Block, a manufacturer of concrete building and landscaping materials in Midland, Ont., has begun using ground-up glass in its concrete blocks.

Concrete is a mixture of cement, sand, water and, depending on what it's being used for, gravel. The sand is primarily made up of silica, usually from fragments of quartz in rocks such as granite. It's the same raw material we use for glass, making recycled glass an ideal replacement for some of the sand in a concrete mix.

Atlas is making structural elements for walls and foundations that is 30-per-cent post-consumer recycled glass. The company estimates that for every 1 per cent they use, they consume 1.9 million glass bottles.

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