More and more, businesses must find ways to not only minimize their carbon footprints but to go carbon neutral or even negative – that is, remove as much or more carbon dioxide than they emit to achieve net-zero or negative emissions.
Carbon neutrality may seem like the latest sustainability gimmick for companies to appear eco-conscious, but unlike other sustainability claims, it can be scientifically measured for actual environmental impact. To reach carbon neutrality requires an exhaustive process that involves every aspect of an organization.
Take the case of Walker Industries, an Ontario-based company that provides environmental services, emulsions manufacturing, aggregates and construction. The company is leading the way with a plan to reach carbon neutrality through reduced emissions, renewable energy production and carbon sequestration. “We’re different from most businesses,” says president and CEO Geordie Walker. “We think about things on an intergenerational time horizon, and we want to have a meaningful effect on resources and carbon emissions. Knowing the vast impact of carbon on air quality and the climate crisis, it’s been a very important focus for us. We aim to create positive long-term impacts on our people, communities and the environment.”
Named to Canada’s 2021 Clean50, Crystal Vella leverages her carbon quantification and management expertise for Walker Industries’ environmental division, helping the company develop its carbon neutrality plan. It first required taking a step back. “It was important not to jump into just doing,” she explains. “We had to figure out what carbon neutrality in our company would actually mean.” That required a lot of research, examining best practices. Ms. Vella recruited students from her alma mater, Niagara College, to conduct the research and learn first hand how it helps inform decisions in the corporate world.
Knowing the vast impact of carbon on air quality and the climate crisis, it’s been a very important focus for us. We aim to create positive long-term impacts on our people, communities and the environment.
“We looked at titans of industry to see what they’re doing and how they’re going to get there,” Ms. Vella says. They next examined their own specific industries to understand carbon neutrality in those sectors. “Now that we have that understanding, we have to buckle down and look at the scope of our carbon footprint. We must map out the boundaries to understand our actual impact – are we looking at the extraction of aggregate material from the ground to when it leaves our facility, or just the processing of that material? It comes down to getting our research done to really understand what our impact is, know what’s possible to reduce that impact, identify where we can adopt renewable energies that complement our operations and take all of that to become a carbon-neutral entity.”
To this end, Walker Industries engages in rigorous resource recovery where materials and energy are recovered from waste to be reused in a circular economy. In linear economies, we take resources from the earth to make products, use up those products – or when we no longer want them – then throw them away. It’s simply not sustainable. A circular economy, on the other hand, intentionally designs out waste and is based on the idea that everything gets reused.
Mr. Walker likens a typical household to a circular economy. “You put your yard waste out to compost; you put out recyclables; you flush the toilet,” he says. “All the things you use leave your home, but much of it can be harnessed into something valuable that you bring back to your home like sustainable soils and mulch, clean electricity or renewable natural gas.”
Walker Industries offers a wide range of services that contribute to a low-carbon circular economy, including composting, biosolids management, grease-trap servicing, and wood and shingle grinding. Such organic waste is transformed into fertilizers, mulch, soils and alternative low-carbon fuels while recycled concrete and asphalt get reintegrated into new products. Walker Industries recovers approximately one million metric tonnes of resources annually with a goal of increasing that to five million tonnes.
Walker Industries is also a partner in projects like the Niagara Falls renewable natural gas plant, which is the largest of its kind in Ontario. The plant generates enough clean renewable energy from landfill waste to heat 8,750 homes across the country and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 48,000 tonnes. The innovative Niagara facility captures biogas generated by decomposing organic waste and transforms it into renewable natural gas, a carbon-neutral energy source.
Similarly, Walker Industries helps General Motors (GM) cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent while reducing its reliance on hydro, through a $28-million cogeneration project at its St. Catharines location. By using renewable landfill gas for power – gas that normally would be vented and flared-off at the landfill, piped in from a Walker Industries property three kilometres away – GM becomes more competitive and sustainable in its operations. The project demonstrates how environmental and economic development can go hand in hand. “It’s one of those opportunities where you’re doing a huge positive for the environment while reducing costs,” says Mr. Walker.
As part of the generation that has grown up with climate change, Ms. Vella couldn’t ignore what is happening and has always wanted to try to make a difference. “I see and understand how we affect the Earth,” she says. “It’s about building a sustainable future and ensuring that we have a world that will be good for us and our loved ones.”
Ultimately, corporate sustainability comes down to a genuine commitment from the top down. “The number one thing to achieve carbon neutrality and true sustainability is executive buy-in,” affirms Ms. Vella. “The fact that our leadership is so supportive, and it’s a company goal with dedicated resources, makes it achievable.”
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Canada’s Clean50. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.