As biochemical companies set up shop in Sarnia, some say a greener future is coming to the region

Sarnia, Ont. is known for being an oil town, full of refineries and chemical factories — but signs of a greener future are appearing.

'There's a move away from what Sarnia used to be, and there is the potential of what Sarnia can be'

The manager of open innovation for Origin Materials Canada holds up two plastic bottles. The one on the right is petro-based, made the traditional way using oil. The one on the left is bio-based and was made with Original Materials' products. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

Sarnia, Ont. is known for being an oil town, full of refineries and chemical factories — but signs of a greener future are appearing.

In Sarnia-Lambton's petrochemical valley, you can see the chimneys and smell the fumes and flames. It's a sector that employs more than 4,500 people in the region. 

But some say that over the years, the area has been taking steps to transition slowly toward bio-chemistry. 

Sandy Marshall, the executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada said that Sarnia's history is petrochemical.

"The petrochemical industry developed around here because of the raw materials that were based here. The petrochemical industries thrived here over the years, but it started to peak in around the 1980's or so. At that period of time, we started looking at, where do we start going from there?" he said.

"And probably around 2000, started looking at a transition towards what we call a hybrid chemistry — cluster model, where we start bringing in bio based renewable technologies and integrate them into the ecosystem here with the traditional petrochemical companies."

New kinds of projects

Traditional petrochemical companies like Shell, Imperial Oil and Nova Chemicals are engrained in Sarnia's identity. But a few new, smaller, biochemistry players have moved in and set up shop over the last several years — and they're doing things differently.

Origin Materials Canada plans on setting up its own plant in Sarnia, which should be built and operational by next year. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

Origin Materials, a company based in California, is a part of this small cluster companies. It's set up a pilot plant at Western University's Research Park in Sarnia.

The company makes a major chemical element that's used in plastic. However, instead of making that chemical the traditional way using oil, they use plant-based materials like corn, wood chips and cardboard residues. 

The main product their chemical is currently being used for is in the making of plastic water bottles.

Origin Materials uses plant-based materials like corrugated cardboard and wood chips to make a major chemical component that's used in plastic. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

"The thing that's most different from these bottles is that they are bio-based which means that they come from a renewable resource," explained Alex Ward, the manager of open innovation for Origin Materials Canada.

In the end, she explained, the bottles are still plastic but the way they're made is more eco-friendly.

"The other item that's very important about these bottles is that through our process we actually don't create as much carbon dioxide emissions, so any company that actually uses our products has a lower impact on the environment because we help reduce greenhouse gas emissions through our process."

A place of 'potential'

The company is getting ready to set up its own plant in Sarnia which should be built and operational by next year.

Ward said that the company had been entertaining the idea of setting up shop at several dozen different sites around the world for this project, but that Sarnia was the best fit. With its collection of companies from both the petrochemical industry and biochemical industry, Ward explained that it is full of partnership opportunities.

Sarnia, ON is known for its petrochemical companies like Imperial Oil. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

"I think it has more potential than the rest of Canada probably realizes," she said of Sarnia.

"There's nowhere else in the world that we would have preferred to build this plant."

Ward said she's aware that the company is part of a shift that's happening in the local community. 

"I think transformation is the correct word. We're actually very excited to be part of that process. And I think that it helps put Sarnia on the map as an innovative community and a community that's adaptive to new technologies."

Shaking the Sarnia 'brand'

Shirley De Silva, the president and CEO of the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce said the region's steps toward biochemistry are part of a larger change happening locally. 

The president and CEO of the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce says the region is moving towards the biochemical industry. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

"You see a lot of entrepreneurs developing, a lot of small companies emerging, an artistic sector that's starting to blossom. So there are a lot of positive changes that are occurring in our region," she explained. 

"This area has a great potential."

Though she admits that the Sarnia "brand," which is associated with oil, chemicals and air pollution, is tough to shake.

"I think we're moving away from that naturally, by moving towards the biochemical industry, already there's a move away from what Sarnia used to be, and there is the potential of what Sarnia can be," she said.

"It's always difficult to break away from established brands but as we move forward I think that our brand is naturally going to change, and the more we talk about it actually, the more it will change."

With files from Colin Côté-Paulette