Fueling the future: Alternative fuels play a key role in Emterra's regenerative approach to waste management
Emterra Group, one of the largest resource management companies in Canada, has always been ahead of the times when it comes to tapping into emerging opportunities and building on them to create sustainable solutions. From establishing both British Columbia and Manitoba's first single-stream MRFs, to becoming an early adopter of compressed natural gas (CNG) collection trucks in Canada, it's natural that the company would also be at the forefront of the shift to electrification. As part of the next step toward its environmental and sustainability goals, Emterra has expanded its fleet with the purchase of Canada's first Mack LR Electric collection truck.
"This aligns us with two of our core values, which are sustainability and community," says Brad Muter, chief operations officer at Emterra Group. "We strive as a company to demonstrate environmental leadership in everything we do and strengthen the wellbeing of our communities through social, economic, and environmental contributions."
A pioneer in recycling and waste diversion
Over 45 years ago, Emterra Group founder and CEO Emmie Leung started collecting discarded cardboard and printed papers from the back alleyways of her Vancouver neighbourhood. Seeing value in a resource that was largely overlooked, Leung began packing the materials into the back of her van and sent it to paper mills to be reused.
In 1976, Leung founded International Paper Industries (IPI). Leung performed every job herself, from collecting and shipping materials, to bookkeeping and business development. As IPI expanded to include municipal recycling services, Leung introduced the first-ever blue bag program, and in 1995 launched operations in Ontario under the name of Halton Recycling. By 2008, IPI and Halton Recycling combined to create a new division of Emterra Group: Emterra Environmental.
"This was back when recycling wasn't really thought of that much by businesses and consumers alike. She had the conception back then to see value in materials, and the fact that a lot of it was going into the waste stream," says Muter. "She took it upon herself to start collecting this stuff, delivering it, and getting value for the material, which then really started the whole Emterra Group story."
Fast forward to present day, and Emterra Group is celebrating its seventh consecutive year of being named one of Canada's Greenest Employers. From a company that started out as just one woman, Emterra Group now employs more than 1,100 employees that service over 40 locations across Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Michigan.
Adopting alternative fuels to lower greenhouse gas emissions
When it comes to operating collection vehicles that run on alternative fuel sources, Emterra Group has taken a lead role. With over 500 vehicles in its fleet, approximately 40 percent operate on compressed natural gas. CNG collection trucks reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent and noise pollution by 90 percent, while also consuming less fuel than their diesel counterparts.
Back in 2012, Emterra Group opened its first CNG fuelling station for its fleet of over 60 collection trucks in Winnipeg. And as you can imagine with the harsh Winnipeg weather, this fleet quickly became the largest fleet of CNG collection trucks in the world to operate in an extreme cold weather climate.
"It was a big test for us," says Muter. "We were either going to be successful or we were going to fail, and when we had failures, we learned from them as quickly as possible so that we wouldn't repeat them in future deployments of CNG stations and trucks. We discovered a lot back in 2012, and since then we've rolled out a number of CNG stations and fleets across Canada."
Being an early adopter of CNG, it's no surprise that the company's natural progression was to also embrace the industry's shift toward electric collection vehicles. Earlier this year, Emterra Group purchased the first Mack LR Electric Class 8 refuse vehicle in Canada, also marking the first battery-electric vehicle in Emterra's fleet.
"By purchasing and deploying one truck for our test, we needed to go out there and really do a lot of research and work with vendors on the electric charging systems, which are more complex than we initially thought," says Muter. "We ended up getting a 50 kilowatt mobile charger, which is sufficient to operate one electric vehicle. In the future, if and when we increase the fleet of electric trucks, we will build out larger infrastructure."
Emterra's LR Electric will be equipped with an automated side-loader and will operate in residential areas within the Region of Peel in Ontario.
In 2019, Peel's Regional Council declared a climate emergency and implemented a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. With these robust goals in mind, Emterra Group knew that Peel Region would be a like-minded partner for the project.
"I'm hopeful that someday we'll be seeing municipalities going out and actually putting a requirement for electric vehicles into their request for proposal documents, so that when we go to bid on new contracts, not only us, but our competitors, will need to go electric to a certain percentage," says Muter. "It may be a little premature to think about converting a whole fleet to electric, but certainly they could one day put in a requirement for a percentage of electric versus CNG or diesel vehicles."
The future of compressed natural gas in the waste collection sector
With an electrified future on the horizon for the hauling and collection industry, it's natural to wonder where CNG will fit in as new technologies emerge and others fall to the wayside.
"CNG, in the scope of things, is relatively new, but I think there's going to be a lot of factors that will come into play. We're just going to keep gathering information and adapt based on the success of this test, and we don't know where we'll go in the future. I think diesel someday will be a thing of the past with what they're doing in terms of mandates on electric cars. I think trucks will follow those mandates, and someday we'll see electric trucks everywhere, and that will be the norm," says Muter. "How long that's going to take, I can't tell you right now, but hopefully our competitors get in the game because this is great for the environment, it's great for our customers and the community, and we want to see the whole industry eventually following our path and electrifying their fleets."
Muter cites Emterra Group's ever-evolving nature over the last four decades as a promising indicator of what's to come in the company's future as it continues to take advantage of new innovations that help reduce the carbon footprint of its operations.
"I started my career in this industry about four decades ago, so I've been in this a long time. I think back to when I started, and how the equipment has evolved. It was fairly rudimentary at the time, and the changes that were made to equipment were typically to improve productivity on the street. How do we make the truck cycle faster? How do we make the equipment pick up bins faster?" says Muter. "I'm really excited to see a shift now after many decades in which productivity is still very important, but reducing your carbon footprint is equally, if not more, important right now with the increasing concern around the climate change crisis."