Keeping plastic out of the environment: “It’s the right thing to do”

Plastic is everywhere. It’s in everything – from food packaging to medical equipment to car parts. Soon, one of the most common types of plastic – polypropylene – will be manufactured in Alberta at Inter Pipeline’s Heartland Petrochemical Complex.

Beginning in 2022, the facility will convert locally-sourced propane into about 525,000 tonnes of polypropylene per year – the equivalent in weight of about 7,400 Boeing 737 airplanes.

With growing concern around the impact of plastic on the environment, the company is taking action – committing $10 million dollars over 10 years to an applied research partnership with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

“It’s the right thing to do from an environmental perspective, and it’s what a responsible operator in this space does,” said Lorraine Royer, Director of Government and Stakeholder Relations at Inter Pipeline. “We look for solutions so that our impact is as little as it can be.”

The Plastics Research in Action (PRIA) initiative is exploring ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste that enters the environment, and how to contribute to a “circular economy”, where plastic waste is reused in new products rather than tossed into landfills.

Two applied research projects are now underway.


Microscope on microplastics


The first project looks specifically at microplastics – small plastic particles less than five millimetres long – in the North Saskatchewan River, which runs alongside the Heartland Petrochemical Complex. Researchers are taking water and sediment samples to identify and measure microplastics in the river.

“Microplastics are a concern for regulators and scientists because there’s just so little known about how to find them, measure them and what impact they may have,” said Royer. “There’s really not a consistent body of knowledge anywhere in the world.”

This research will build a complete picture of what is in the North Saskatchewan River. But Royer says it will also go beyond that.

“They’re going to create what doesn’t exist, which is a standardized, repeatable, verifiable sampling and testing methodology that we can publish and share with scientists doing this work around the world for freshwater sampling,” said Royer. “That’s the way progress is made in science – to be able to create things that are standardized, repeatable and verifiable so you can make advances on that.”


Finding new ways to use plastic


In the second project, researchers are looking at creative ways to repurpose plastics that are hard to recycle.

“Alberta has this large and growing store of recyclable materials that it can’t recycle,” said Royer. “In years past, we’ve been able to find markets to ship it over seas but those are closed to us now. So, we need to find something else to do with it.”

Researchers are looking at ways to blend hard-to-recycle plastic into asphalt that can be used on Alberta roads. Some countries with warmer climates are doing this already – by converting the plastic waste into a wax product and blending it with asphalt. The goal of the project here will be to figure out how to make that work in cold climate conditions.

Strathcona and Sturgeon Counties are involved in this project, providing test sites for the blended asphalt. The counties are also looking at ways to streamline the recycling collection process.


Making a difference


Both projects started in 2020 and are expected to wrap up in 2023, with the plan to release the findings publicly. New projects will continue to be initiated under the PRIA banner within this decade. Royer says it’s all part of being a responsible operator.

“To contribute to a body of knowledge around plastic waste research and find practical solutions to help move Alberta and Canada toward a more circular economy is a big part of the sustainability responsibility of any company producing plastics,” said Royer. “We want to be part of it, we want to be part of the solution.”

Special thanks to Lorraine Royer, Inter Pipeline’s Director of Government and Stakeholder Relations for her contributions.