In 2003, the City of Edmonton launched a pilot project to recycle street sand, a program that would go on to win awards and was believed to be the biggest of its kind in North America.
Nineteen years later, the city no longer recycles the thousands of tonnes of sand it uses each year to improve winter-driving traction, though other Alberta cities are saving money by recycling sand.
Edmonton cancelled its sand recycling program after a city audit found it was not properly managed and may not have led to cost savings, but recycling advocates — including the program's architect — say the program is worth pursuing and should never have been thrown out.
"Dozens of people call me all the time asking me, 'Why aren't we doing this anymore?'" said John Mundy, a former city employee who used to run a sand recycling company.
Last year the city removed more than 20,000 cubic metres of sand from Edmonton streets — enough to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools.
The city says sand collected during street sweeping is transferred to appropriate waste facilities, then hauled to the landfill.
Mundy and other recycling advocates say it should be recycled.
Program abandoned after audit
In 2016, the city auditor's office found the sand recycling program had not met its goals, was not properly managed and may not have led to cost-savings.
Craig McKeown, parks and roads services branch manager with the City of Edmonton, recently told CBC News that administration accepted all of the audit office's recommendations and the program stopped.
Sean Stepchuk, director and co-founder of the non-profit organization Waste Free Edmonton, said the city should have refined the program instead of abandoning it.
"You don't just throw away a program because there are some errors in it," he said.
Other cities save sand
Since Edmonton's program ended, other cities have started and expanded sand recycling programs.
The City of Calgary has recycled approximately 250 tonnes of winter traction materials annually since a pilot began in 2019, said spokesperson Sherri Zickefoose.
Citizens can take the recycled salt-sand mixture for free and use it on their sidewalks and walkways.
Doug Halldorson, roads superintendent for the City of Red Deer, said dumping street sand into the landfill would cost the city $350,000 annually.
"It got cost-prohibitive to just throw it away," he said.
Red Deer now recycles 90 per cent of its street sand and saves an additional $2,000 per year by buying new sand in smaller quantities.
Since Red Deer's program began in 2018, about 18,000 tonnes of sand has been diverted from the landfill.
Since 2017, the City of Lethbridge has been sifting its own street sweepings, sending about a quarter of the material to the landfill and using the rest in winter salt and sand mixes.
"Landfill disposal is fairly expensive so there is a cost saving for sure," said spokesperson Tara Grindle.
What went wrong in Edmonton?
Back in 2003, Mundy was working for the city's transportation branch. He brought a plan to recycle sand to Jerry Leonard, then the executive manager of the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence.
Through an arrangement that Mundy said was vetted by the city's law branch and the centre's board of directors, the centre contracted with the city to clean the sand and hired Mundy's company — Sand Recycling Ltd. — to do the work.
Mundy, who retired from the city in 2005, said more than a million tonnes of sand was recycled from 2005 until 2016.
The program won numerous awards. When it began, it was believed to be the biggest sand recycling project in North America.
A trophy Mundy received at a construction trade show in Las Vegas for his work on the sand recycling program still sits in his study, and in 2005, he appeared on the cover of Finning Canada's Tracks & Treads magazine. The magazine gave him a nickname: "Sand King."
"It was my life's work," said Mundy, now fully retired and living in Kelowna.
Though Mundy was a subcontractor for the sand recycling program, he said the plan was to have the city take over the program at the end of his contract.
He said part of the program's up-front cost was training city staff to operate equipment and that once the takeover occurred, the city would save more annually.
Mundy said the 2016 city audit "came as a complete shock" because he believed the program was already saving the city $2 million to $3 million a year.
Leonard had left the waste management centre before the audit was released but said that despite the program's costs, he also thought it was cost-effective.
"Personally, I think it was a good program," he said.
Blair Buchholtz, who took over Mundy's job as general supervisor of aggregate recycling, said the city was about two years away from taking over the program.
"We were so close, which was very frustrating because when they shut that down, it was just like everything ground to a standstill," said Buchholtz, who stopped working for the city in 2016.
Buchholtz, who lives in Strathcona County, said he sees piles of sand sitting at Edmonton snow storage facilities.
"I just shake my head because I know how much per tonne it is to move it, how much per tonne it is to get rid of it, and how much potential money there is sitting there for the city," he said.
John Potter, manager of transportation and waste for the City of St. Albert, said St. Albert's sand recycling program ended when Sand Recycling Ltd. ceased operations. The company recycled sand for St. Albert and other municipalities in addition to the City of Edmonton.
Potter said St. Albert and other cities have been stockpiling used street sand in case another sand recycling company comes along.
"It would be great if somebody could step up and take that on so that we could be more environmentally responsible," Potter said.
John Ashton, executive director of the Alberta Sand and Gravel Association, said he is aware of several companies in the Edmonton area that could recycle street sand.
Though street sand is no longer recycled in Edmonton, he said a lot of leftover gravel and rubble from construction and road work is being recycled in the city's public and private sectors.
"Compared to a lot of places around the world, we're doing a pretty good job at recycling them," he said.