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The greenest industrial wasteland around

From above, the industrial sprawl bleeds out from Toronto's Pearson airport, a desert made of mundane, gridded factories and warehouses.
It's an endless grey, a bleak hue that makes it impossible to decipher where the buildings end and the sidewalk-ribbed streets begin. But this sprawl is the gritty stuff, the obligatory guts that cities and are made of. 
"If you looked at it from an external perspective you'd say, wow, it really is an environmental activist's nightmare," says Alex Dumesle, manager of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority's Partners in Project Green. "But for us it's a land of opportunity." 
At first, it's hard to sympathize with Dumesle. Anyone who's gotten lost in the landscape of stoplights and concrete surrounding the airport would be hard-pressed to see it for anything other than the requisite industrial gears of the metropolis-–a byproduct of consumer demand from the flourishing city core. 
But this area surrounding the airport is the largest industrial zone in Canada, a region spanning 14,000 hectares and home to 12,500 businesses employing several hundred thousand employees.  
And change is underway.
"We've set out to develop the largest eco-business zone in the world," says Dumesle.
Known officially as Partners in Project Green: A Pearson Eco-Business Zone, the initiative is a partnership between the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) and the TRCA. Though it was officially launched in 2008, it has taken six years for the conglomerate to really bolster its ranks and hash out concrete plans to tackle shared sustainability challenges surrounding waste management, water stewardship, electrical consumption and stakeholder engagement.
Six years may seem sluggish, but we're talking about nearly 1,000 businesses teaming up in a myriad of consortiums and across a number of projects and initiatives to collectively lessen their carbon footprint.
In a sense, it goes against the very fabric of capitalism—collaboration between potential competitors isn't really a common colloquialism muttered amongst the halls of business schools. But it's about changing perspectives, says John Coyne, vice president of legal and external affairs at Unilever Canada. 
"It's a different way of thinking about sustainability, cooperation and the environment," says Coyne. "[PPG] is about businesses and how the people who populate those businesses need to share and participate more actively in their overall communities."
And in just over half a decade, the PPG has started to see some very real results.
Unilever Canada's Rexdale plant sits within the zone and, as Canada's largest purchaser of green energy—they buy 59,000 MWh of electricity which is enough to power 6,000 homes—they're hoping other businesses will hop on the green energy bandwagon. "We're trying to lead by example," says Coyne. 
Canadian Tire has two massive distribution centres in the zone, occupying a combined total of over 2.6 million square feet, which is why Brad Chittick, associate vice president of supply chain facilities and maintenance at Canadian Tire, has been involved in PPG since late 2009. It was at one of the PPG's events that he heard about the Ontario Power Authority's program that funds a percentage of installation costs to put electrical sub-meters throughout a facility to monitor consumption.
"We [installed] some metres in late 2012, got our first results and started brainstorming how to curb consumption," says Chittick.
In 2013, the company saved 1900 MWh as a result of 17 different initiatives throughout the plant. "We have an annualized savings of over $320,000 a year directly out of that," he says. "That was another direct result of PPG bringing vendors, consultants and other members together to identify opportunities."
But it's the collaborations that sit at the epicenter of sustainability for the zone.
Chittick is chairman of the energy performance committee, a subcommittee of PPG tasked with developing energy-related projects. 
"We're looking at getting a number of members in the area to set up an open network of charging stations for electric vehicles," he says. 
The network tackles what Chittick calls the chicken-egg conundrum of the electric car industry. Without adequate infrastructure no one's going to buy the cars. But if no one's buying the cars, why build the infrastructure.
"So we're looking into building the infrastructure," he says.
Some companies in the zone are even sharing materials.
Norampac-Mississauga uses waste steam from Algonquin Power's energy-from-waste facility in its papermaking process. Algonquin Power sends the steam in a pipeline down Bramalea Road to Norampac, which returns the resulting water condensate back to Algonquin Power in what's called a closed-loop process.
The GTAA, which obviously represents the largest entity within the zone, has been looking towards alternative energy systems that make sense.
Toby Lennox, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at GTAA, points to the geothermal plant that powers one of their fire halls. The idea came from Eric Lange at nearby Lange Transportation.
"He had a geothermal plant and we met him through the PPG and it helped us start looking into [using geothermal heating]," says Lennox. "Here we are this huge entity with all these resources but through PPG we were able to access somebody we never would have, to give us advice on something that we could then put into practice right away."
A lot of the programs are geared towards cost savings or at least helping companies reach cost neutral objectives. 
"We're looking at a large scale [project] where companies would be collecting rainwater from neighbouring rooftops, funneling it to a shared facility which they would use the water to wash the trucks and recycle the water to be able to wash them all over again," says TRCA's Dumesle. "This is the type of innovation that we're promoting and encouraging, but there's still a lot to be accomplished."
In hindsight, the bleak industrialized zone seen from the air betrays the invisible lines strung between the different businesses that share this plot of land. Or maybe it's a question of semantics, is zone even the proper word? Sure geographically speaking it's a zone, but when you dig in and look at all the moving parts it drifts further from the term. Instead, it's a mosaic, a writhing organism with hidden sinewy links and conduits running between seemingly unrelated, even competitive, entities.
And like many entities, it can't help but grow.
"It is not a time limited project or one you can put a border around," says Coyne. "It is a living, organic project and that makes it unique, but it makes it fragile if people don't step up and pay attention."

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto StarThe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. 
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