A contract worker sorts paper at the Edmonton recycling facility.Ed Kaiser / Postmedia

By Graham Hicks

Rarely has a city felt so betrayed, so let down, by one of its own departments.

City Auditor David Wiun’s recently released audit of the Waste Services Branch is one of the most damning City of Edmonton public reports ever released.

The once world-famous City of Edmonton Waste Services Branch had been fudging its reports, its numbers were not to be believed, its management culture had become “independent” (i.e. gone rogue), equipment and facilities were (and are) falling apart …  

Waste Services has hopelessly failed in its long-touted goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill. The best the city had done was diverting 49.5% of residential garbage in 2013, and had since been getting worse, down to 35.7% in 2016.

Most of our garbage continues to be hauled to a landfill site near Ryley, 80 kilometres away. Nobody knows how much – or where – most construction waste is going.

The news was even more stunning, because Edmonton thought of itself as a world leader in municipal waste reduction/recycling solutions.

Kudos and praise had been lavished upon Edmonton’s “world-class” waste management facilities for decades. It turns out this emperor has no clothes.

The nut of the issue, however, is not recent mismanagement – disgusting as that may be.

It’s about decisions made 30 years ago by Edmonton city council under then mayor Jan Reimer whose nickname was “the Queen of Green”.

Far-reaching multi-million-dollar waste-management decisions were made on faulty business models, on the assumption that unproven technology would work.

In the early 1990s, faced with the fast-filling Clover Bar dump and opposition to any new landfill, the city went all-in on the coolest, newest waste-management technology.

In one location, the city’s Waste Management Centre, all recycling, separation, composting, high-tech incineration and making fuel from garbage would take place.

The deal was sweetened by utility company TransAlta’s desire to build a giant composter, on site, for its own land reclamation purposes.

It all sounded just great – 90% residential waste diversion by 2000! Biofuels from garbage!  Garbage in, compost out!

The waste management bureaucrats were caught up in their own rhetoric. City council was enamoured with the prospect of being a municipal world-leader in waste management.

Nobody thought about skyrocketing costs, or that technology not used before might not work as promised. Then-Alderman (Councillor) Ron Hayter predicted the entire thing would be an ultra-expensive white elephant. Hayter was dismissed as a cranky old fogey living the past.

What went wrong?

The giant composter – the biggest in the world, eight football fields in size – was very cool and worked okay. But it was hugely expensive. No other city has gone the composting route. When TransAlta wanted out, the city bought the composter for $96 million.  

In mid-2016, the mighty composter had to be shut down. Its aging roof, never refurbished, was  close to collapsing. The composer has lain idle ever since. The Waste Service Branch  has not yet released any figures, or budgeted for, necessary repairs.

Then there is Enerkem Alberta Biofuels, the energy company promising to make bio-fuel from garbage at its plant in the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. The plant, using brand-new technology, was announced with fanfare and government financial support  back in 2010.

Eight years later, due to technical glitches, it is still not operational! The latest promise is start-up in 2019.

Meanwhile, other Canadian cities moved to proven, less-expensive waste reduction strategies, still using landfill, but more thoroughly sorting and reducing waste at the household/commercial level.

Edmonton’s great mistake was the gathering of all its garbage (including blue bags) in one spot, then sorting and assigning that waste into expensive, new-technology-dependent streams all needing specialized equipment and housing.

Nobody has put a price tag on Edmonton’s broken-down Cadillac waste management system, as waste services are allegedly 100% covered by residential and commercial fees.

But this litany of ambitious error has surely cost us billions in much higher-than-average waste service fees compared to other cities.  Edmonton’s monthly per-household waste services fee is $46. Calgary is about to increase its monthly fee to $24.

To be fair, much is right in Edmonton’s campaign to reduce, reuse and recycle. Electronics recycling, eco-stations, even the blue bag system soon to be re-tweaked. Our garbage collection works well.

But here we are, 30 years later, with a broken composter, an eight-years-overdue biofuel-from-garbage plant, and a fast-aging waste management centre infrastructure. Plus an auditor’s report telling us  management of the Waste Services Branch (until recently we hope) was incompetent and dysfunctional.

Thank you, City Auditor David Wiun, for doing your job, shocking though your findings may be.