When life gives you forest waste, make biochar.
At least that is what one local initiative is doing after community group Voices for Good Air (VFGA) was awarded a $100,000 EcoAction Community Funding Program grant by Environment and Climate Change Canada for its ‘Forest Waste to Biochar’ initiative.
The initiative focuses on the viability of turning forest waste into biochar, or charcoal made from plant matter, and stored in soil as a potential (but experimental) means of removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration.
This includes experiments with the soil additive in agriculture and gardening throughout the region.
Another element of the funding is to provide training and employment skills for unemployed and underemployed people within the recipients’ region.
In this case, the initiative was proposed with the mindset of employing a number of Wet’suwet’en youth aged 18-25 and giving them transferrable skills they can use within a rapidly-changing industry.
So far, the iniative has employed eight Wet’suwet’en individuals with approximately 300 person days of work since the first worker was hired at the end of February.
Retired biologist Len Vanderstar and the board of the directors of Clean Air Now (CAN), which is associated with VFGA, oversees the finance and reporting to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
On the operational side of things, Chris Howard of Whanau Forestry is general manager of field operations.
He said it was his wife, who used to work with the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, who initially brought the grant to his attention.
“It’s something we’ve been working on both climate change stuff and capacity to building it in Indigenous communities and this fit the bill because a big component of it was just providing training and employment skills for unemployed and underemployed young men and women from the Wet’suwet’en community.”
While he is excited about the possibility of a future in which biochar has applicable uses in carbon sequestration (while also potentially doubling as things such as fertilizer) Howard stressed the techniques and concept are experimental.
“Its still relatively unknown and its economic viability is limited at the moment but … under the umbrella of a grant it was something we wanted to experiment with especially given the state of the forest industry at the moment, with mill shutdowns and closures we’re looking for different ideas [and] innovations where we can use our biomass.”
Biomass which Howard notes the province has no shortage of and which routinely goes up in flames or is left to rot.
“I think that the Province is going in a good direction in the sense that they’re trying to create regulations that use more of that waste and this is just a little speck of a project to attempt to see if we can come up with a commercially-viable product that we can have a small local business with.”
More recently, employees with the initiative were at The Grendel Group (GG), a registered charity in town that, on top of a number of other programs, offers various catering and gardening programs to the surrounding area.
The only problem? Even with their plot at the Railway Avenue community garden and private greenhouse nearby, GG is looking for added capacity to grow produce.
Enter the Forest Waste to Biochar initiative, which has partnered with GG’s grow manager Dmitri Cody to help build a new miniature greenhouse on their property.
The initiative is helping with the construction of the greenhouse’s foundation and beds.
Upon its completion they will be mixing biochar into GG’s compost, with a number of batches already mixed in previous months.
The hope, Howard said, is when the biochar is rolled into the compost it helps suck up nutrients and moisture from the compost, subsequently making these nutrients more readily available to the root masses of the plants.
However, he once again stressed the experimental nature of the process and how it’s still uncertain to what degree the technique is a viable means of carbon sequestration.
For his part, he seems to remain hopeful yet skeptical.
“Some people look at this as the silver bullet and I kind of believe that’s a dangerous thing to do because we’ve proven in the past that we’re not that good at that kind of bio-geo-engineering or whatever.
“That’s why I say I’m more interested in proving this as a product that can be viable as an alternative to say, fertilizer.”
In the case where biochar could be proven as a viable sequestration method, Howard noted the hope would be to try to secure additional funding to continue either the training program or the possibility of some sort of commercial product.
Another cool thing about biochar? Howard said a production plant could hypothetically be self-sustainable, running off the energy created from the very biochar it produces.
So far Howard said feedback has been very helpful. Even in situations where a method is not entirely successful it provides the group with feedback they can then refine their methods with.
This was the case after a farmer mentioned to Howard that he needs the biochar to be finer (pieces can be around two inches in size after being initially processed).
“The two-inch pieces just aren’t suited to seed drills and agriculture and that’s what he was concerned with … so we’re going to pound out a bunch of stuff for him as well.”
Grant funding goes until Mar. 31, 2020, at which point Howard said the initiative will look to either private or more grant funding to continue either the training program or the possibility of producing some sort of commercial product.
The project has been supported by in-kind donations and funding from various public and private groups including; Wetzin’kwa Community Forest, The Office of the Wet’suwet’en, West Fraser Mills, Witset Employment Services, Smithers Secondary School, iCount School, and Silvicon Services.