Garbage. If there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that the world would be a better place if there was less of it.
It’s a philosophy taken to heart by a team at the ConocoPhillips-operated Surmont oil sands facility (known as Surmont Joint Venture with Total E&P Canada) in northeastern Alberta.
Garbage can have a huge and costly negative impact, particularly in the remote boreal region. But through a comprehensive and forward-thinking on-site waste management program, staff at Surmont have brought environmental responsibility to a personal level, while reducing the facility’s overall footprint.
The Surmont Operations Waste and Liability Strategy – OWLS – launched in 2017. It’s an employee-led initiative that includes representatives from a number of teams, including operations, regional residence, environmental specialists and contractors.
“We felt that if we brought together people who were passionate about sustainability and waste reduction we could come up with innovative and collaborative ways to deal with the waste we generate at Surmont,” explains Brendin Eshpeter, operations services shift supervisor.
“To be successful, the team required a thorough understanding of waste and recycling facilities in Alberta, the logistics of transporting waste material from our site to those facilities, and on-site requirements for collecting and handling waste including health and safety concerns.”
To begin, the team listed all the site’s various waste streams and proposed possible solutions. Next they did an economic analysis of the current cost of waste handling versus possible new management ideas, and chose solutions that both maximized cost returns and minimized waste.
I Choose to Reuse
Among the first initiatives to go from concept to action: disposable coffee cups. The OWLS team learned that some 750,000 single-use cups were being sent to the regional landfill from Surmont every year, at substantial cost.
“The committee determined the best way to reduce this waste stream was to eliminate it all together,” Eshpeter says. “We thought, ‘What if everyone had their own cup?’ We trialed a number of different reusable cup options, chose one we liked and ordered enough to give one to every person on site.”
Then came the hard part: convincing all site staff to sign on, an exercise in change management and employee engagement. The OWLS team crafted a catchy slogan – “I Choose to Reuse” – plus posters and other communication tools, to educate everyone about the coming change. On execution day, reusable cups were distributed and two weeks later all remaining disposable cups were removed.
“People can be very resistant to change, but also adapt quickly,” Eshpeter observes. “Not only did we eliminate disposable cups from the camp and site, resulting in cost savings and less waste going to landfill, but there’s also the potential to adopt our strategy at other ConocoPhillips locations.”
Food waste to biomass
Food waste was another waste stream identified by the team. Eshpeter says, “Food wastes are created every day by all staff on site, further amplified by our camp that provides food to residents.
“We determined the volume of waste being hauled to landfill, and tracked the associated cost. We also figured out GHG emissions – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a standard calculation for the GHGs created per pound of food waste. The GHGs from this waste stream are a combination of transportation and landfill emissions.”
The OWLS committee looked at a number of options, including composting, but decided that wasn’t the best solution due to the area needed, logistics, and wildlife management issues (bears and other wildlife can be attracted to food waste and compost). Instead, the team chose Eco-growth technology, which can convert food waste into biomass. The approach turns approximately 385 kilograms of raw waste, including food, organics, paper and grease, into about 77 kilograms of high-quality biomass every 24 hours. The resulting product can be used in place of sawdust in industrial processes, reducing the company’s carbon footprint. The team is also looking at other on-site uses.
Eshpeter says, “We worked with the manufacturer to adapt the equipment to our needs, modify systems for feeding the machines and make them user-friendly for staff and workers. We’ve reduced camp waste by about 235,000 kilograms per year, which reduces pressure on the regional landfill, truck traffic and our carbon footprint.”
Time to recycle
Another sizeable waste stream was cardboard, primarily in the form of boxes from shipping / receiving operations and from the site’s residential camp. Cardboard was previously sent to the regional landfill, but the OWLS team purchased a compactor and repurposed an old mechanic shop as a recycling centre. Now, cardboard is compacted, baled and sent to Edmonton for recycling. The resulting paper toiletries are sold back to the site. This initiative reduced landfill waste by 20 tonnes in just three months, and saved 2,200 litres of fuel needed to transport cardboard to the landfill.
Wooden pallets from shipping and receiving were another target for recycling. Again, this material previously went to the regional landfill – some 212,000 kilograms in 2017 alone. The OWLS team brought a wood chipper to Surmont. Wood chips are now stored on site for future use as a bulking agent in various facility processes and for erosion control on slopes and walking trails.
And more to come…
The OWLS team intends to continue finding waste reduction opportunities, drive innovation and make a difference. For instance, the biomass product from Eco-growth technology has been tested and approved by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for use as compost, and Eco-growth has been working with other municipalities in Alberta to adapt the technology for processing sewage sludge – which could prove to be another waste reduction initiative at Surmont.
Other initiatives include a reusable water bottle program similar to the personal coffee cup program, and a work glove recycling program.
OWLS is an example of how responsible, sustainable development has become part of the core culture at Canada’s oil and natural gas companies. Producers are focused on initiatives like reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, recycling water, managing wildlife and other actions that can have large, even global, impacts. However, they also recognize that change occurs at the personal level, with decisions we make every day.
“We continually look at ideas to reduce our waste, carbon footprint and make the site sustainable,” says Eshpeter. “Bringing environmental initiatives to a personal level helps people connect with their personal energy footprint.”