Queen's University Queen's University

Warren Mabee

Creating a Circular Economy

Warren Mabee taps his desk with two fingers as he talks.

Partly it’s for emphasis. But mostly it’s to draw my attention to the desk. “It’ll last forty to fifty years,” he says. “Then it’ll just go into a landfill. You can’t even burn it because it’s full of phenol formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen.”

Mabee wants to change the way we think about objects like this desk. Think of it, or the wood that makes it up, differently. See it as something that can be taken apart and put to other purposes. That it might, ultimately, be used as a source of fuel. That it might also, during the time it exists, act as a storage pool that keeps excess carbon out of the atmosphere and fights climate change. It becomes part of what he calls the “circular economy.”

Mabee works at the place where science meets policy, and the environment meshes with economics. The Canada Research Chair in Renewable Energy Development and Implementation, he holds joint appointments in the Department of Geography and the School of Policy Studies, and is cross-appointed to the School of Environmental Studies. Trained as a forester (he holds a PhD in wood science from the University of Toronto), he cut his policy teeth during a stint at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, followed by a spell as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.

Mabee’s current focus is on biofuels, as part of the BioFuelNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence, whose ultimate goal is to produce wood or cellulose-based ethanol. “That’s the holy grail,” says Mabee, adding, “we’re close but not there yet.” However, that’s not the only possible use for biofuels. Generating electricity, for example, would be “a terrific use of the waste that’s left over at a saw mill or a pulp mill.” Waste that would otherwise just break down, leaking methane into the atmosphere. Mabee is currently working on a pilot project with Nipissing University in the so-called “Blue Sky country” around North Bay to try to find uses for forest waste there.

The challenges of doing this are not just technical. “The technology developers don’t know how to talk to the forestry companies,” says Mabee. There must be incentives in place to encourage the adoption of new technologies. There has to be a viable business model. This is where he puts on his policy hat, stirring up public debate, helping governments to develop policies that will encourage this.

For Mabee, though, biofuels are just one part of the circular economy he talks about. Ultimately he’d like to see Canada move away from its current forestry practices to a more managed approach on smaller areas of land. These could be closer to roads and nearer their end users, which would mean less energy expended in transporting the timber. “You won’t have to haul it five hundred kilometres.” The natural forests could be left more-or-less in place, giving them, as Mabee puts it “room to maneuver” in the face of the changes they will undergo as the climate changes. Rather than attempt to compete with low-wage producers such as Brazil and Indonesia, we would focus on high value-added products. Not just the wood, but “chemicals and plastics.”

“Many people have concerns about growing plants or trees for fuel. Developing long-lasting, higher-value products – think of my desk, only made with easily-recycled, bio-based plastics and wood – can help allay those concerns.”

This circular economy has another function: fighting global warming. “Currently,” says Mabee, “we have no effective carbon sequestration tool.” Wood can provide that. Talking about that desk he says: “You could design it so you get one hundred years of use,” out of the wood in differing forms. “Every desk, every building could be designed to be a storage pool. You can actually capture a lot of carbon and keep it in solid form. I call it ’Carbon Capture and Recycling’ – with apologies to CCR (the band).”

This won’t be easy. “It’s building codes, it’s government incentives, it’s research and development. How do we get people doing this?”

Mabee will be in the middle of it. “Everybody is always telling me to narrow it down, but I need to keep my fingers on all of these threads!”

Profile: Ian Coutts
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013