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Trouble with trash? Try turning it into fuel

It's a problem that cities all over the world face: what to do with the vast amounts of trash generated every day?

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2012 the recycling rate for municipal solid waste (MSW) in the United States was a little over a third, while the vast majority of the rest is sent to landfill sites.

In some cases, MSW is burned to produce electricity — but this generates its own pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

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A bulldozer pushes trash into piles at the Miramar Landfill in San Diego, California.Sam Hodgson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The trouble with trash isn't going away — in fact it's getting bigger. The World Bank is predicting that by 2025 the world's urban population will produce 2.2 billion tonnes of MSW per year, while according to the EPA in 2011 landfill sites, "were the third largest human-made source of methane in the United States."

It is against this backdrop that Montreal, Canada, based Enerkem has come up with a solution to what is becoming a bulging, noxious, problem.

The clean tech company has developed technology that "bio-refines" non-recyclable waste – think plastic, plants and wood – into biofuels and renewable chemicals. Biofuels are seen as renewable and viable alternatives to diesel and petrol, and can be derived from organic materials, usually plants and crops such as sugarcane and rapeseed.

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This does come at a cost, however: a 2013 report by LRS Consultancy, which specializes in environmental consultancy, put the cost of biodiesel manufacture at roughly 75p ($1.25) per liter, compared with 52p (86¢) per liter for petrodiesel.

"[Our] clean technology replaces the use of petroleum for the production of liquid transportation fuels and chemicals by using urban waste materials instead," Vincent Chornet, President and CEO of Enerkem, told CNBC.com in an email.

"This bio-refinery process converts waste into a chemical-grade synthetic gas which is then turned into biofuels and biochemicals using catalysts. In less than five minutes, the waste becomes fuels and chemicals."

In the city of Edmonton, Canada, Enerkem Alberta Biofuels, an affiliate of Enerkem, is building the world's first large-scale 'municipal waste-to-biofuels facility', with a scheduled spring start date.

It is estimated that once up and running, the plant will turn 100,000 tonnes of MSW otherwise destined for landfill into 38 million liters of biofuel every year, while the city's waste diversion rate will increase from 60 percent to 90 percent.

Speaking at the start of the facility's construction in 2010, Ed Stelmach, the then Premier of Alberta, said, "This is truly an investment…in our environment, our economy, and most importantly our future."

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Could then, the technology being implemented in Canada be replicated elsewhere? "We believe that the game-changing facility that we've built in partnership with the city of Edmonton can really become a model for many communities around the world that are looking for a sustainable way to manage waste," Marie-Hélène Labrie, Enerkem's vice president of government relations, told CNBC.com in a phone interview.

"We've developed a standard plant design that can be replicated in many different municipalities and areas around the world, in urban and rural areas," she added.

It's not just Enerkem that's looking to scale up production of biofuels. In New York state, United Biofuels has requested permission from authorities to develop New York's first commercial scale biodiesel plant, while in 2013, Argentina exported over one million tons of biodiesel, according to Reuters.

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