The name Fort McMurray often conjures up grim images of oilsands mines, upgraders and tailing ponds.

Now, the local government is trying to turn over a new leaf – or at least grow some new leaves.

The community plans to use garbage from its landfill to grow vegetables. Already, during the test phase, they have grown lettuce and herbs inside of a shipping container at the community's landfill.

"You always hear [negative] stuff about the oilsands, but these things that we are doing, are making it better," says Ashley Boyd, sustainability associate with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The project is described as containerized aquaponics, since the greenhouse system does not rely on sunshine or soil.

Instead, it uses artificial lighting, heat and a circulating water system. Tilapia, a type of fresh water fish, are raised in the bottom of the greenhouse. Waste water from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine.

"In Fort McMurray, everything has to be transported up here — vegetables, fish, anything that you would want to grow — because we have so much cold weather up here," says Boyd. The average January temperature is about -17 C.

So far, one shipping container is set up as a greenhouse that relies on electricity from the community. Beginning this summer, a gasifier will be installed. The machine will burn wood chips from the landfill to create heat and electricity for the greenhouse. Like many cities, Fort McMurray has a large stockpile of wood chips from tree trimming and removal.

Eventually, all the waste in Fort McMurray that cannot be recycled will go through the gasifier.

"It's using everything we have," says Boyd. "It's taking our waste, putting it through the gasifier, giving it back to the greenhouse to produce vegetables."

The plan is to operate greenhouses in four shipping containers. The vegetables will be given to the local food bank or sold at the farmers' market.

Image problem

Energy companies are continuously trying to improve the image of the oilsands and the community, through newspaper and TV advertisements showing the grassy meadows of sites reclaimed from oil production. At the end of 2012, about 5,000 hectares of land in the oilsands region had been permanently reclaimed, while about 55,000 hectares was in use by industry, according to the Alberta government's most recent figures.

The industry-funded Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance tries to dramatically improve the environmental performance of the oilsands.

The plunge in global oil prices has led to layoffs and company spending cuts in Fort McMurray. So far, the community's greenhouse project has not been affected by any cuts from the local government.

"It is a consideration because some of these things do cost quite a bit of money," says Boyd. "But it is helping the environment and making Fort McMurray such a better place, more efficient."  

Cost unknown

The cost of the greenhouse project is unknown. Boyd says less than $100,000 has been spent on the first shipping container. The municipality has approved $4 million for zero-waste projects, including the greenhouses and gasifier.

"This will be a huge project within the whole municipality. It's just trying to make better use of everything we have."

In the future, office buildings near the landfill could be built to rely on garbage for heat and electricity.

An interpretative centre is also being considered to educate the community about the waste-to-energy projects.