Lands and Environment

Trash talk: Recycling in Canada’s North a costly challenge

This week’s debate over awarding a curbside recycling contract in Whitehorse highlights the difficulties in setting up recycling programs for material that has little commercial value in jurisdictions located far from markets.

Whitehorse city council rejected a residential curbside recycling plan at a July 11 city council meeting because they felt residents would not be willing to accept the increased costs of the program.

Councillors who opposed to the plan wanted a different approach to solid waste management more suited to a smaller Northern city than the one recommended by an outside consultant. They say the Yukon government needs to work with the city on a territory-wide recycling policy, which they hope to work out following the territorial election in the fall.

The mayor and the sole councillor who voted in favour of the plan felt that Whitehorse needs to show leadership on recycling in the North and do what it can now rather than waiting a year or more to develop a plan in conjunction with the territorial government.

Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis voted in favour of curbside recycling for the city. Credit: Brian Pehora

Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis voted in favour of curbside recycling for the city. Credit: Brian Pehora

Waste diversion directly impacts city budgets. Shannon Clohosey, the city’s manager of environmental sustainability, says since the landfill closure liability costs that Whitehorse must pay yearly are tied to how quickly its disposal site fills. This situation exists for most municipalities in Northern Canada, where long distances between communities mean most localities must operate their own disposal sites rather than shipping waste to bigger centres.

Clohosey says evidence from other jurisdictions indicates that curbside recycling increases waste diversion. “Typically, the more convenient the service, the greater the volumes diverted” but “without stable and dedicated funding, local recycling processors may not be able to operate sustainably.”

Whitehorse officials estimate that the city’s landfill won’t be filled for another 41 years, and that it will cost at least $27 million open a new landfill. Officials are aiming to achieve a rate of 50 per cent waste diversion by 2015 and zero waste by 2040. 

Nunavut faces more immediate needs in dealing with its garbage. Open burning regularly takes place to increase space at hamlet dumps and disposal sites spontaneously catch fire regularly. Iqaluit’s landfill — operating beyond its capacity— burned out of control for months in the summer of 2014 and a two-day fire this June highlighted the need for better management of the city’s waste. The city plans to replace its landfill with a site 8.5 kilometres from town but has no plans to recycle household waste.

Iqaluit's controversial dump. Credit: Brian Pehora

Iqaluit’s controversial landfill. Credit: Brian Pehora

The Government of Nunavut administers a program that accepts used alcoholic beverage containers, while Arctic Cooperatives Ltd. accepts empty pop cans. These two programs ship the material south for processing. The city, the territory, and private operators have tried various other recycling schemes in the past, but all proved to be unsustainable. One Nunavut community does operate a curbside recycling program. Cambridge Bay set up its program in the fall of 2015.

The Northwest Territories administers a system of depots financed through fees on beverage containers, single use bags, and electronic equipment that divert these items from landfills. The Government of Yukon passed legislation to introduce fees similar to the NWT’s this spring to help finance the shipment of recyclables to Whitehorse for processing.

A report prepared for Canada’s Ministers of the Environment compares jurisdictional approaches to waste diversion in Canada. While Yukon leads the territories in waste diversion programs, it falls far behind southern Canadian jurisdictions.◉


Photo: A garbage truck in Iqaluit. Credit: Brian Pehora

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