While Yellowknife, Northwest Territories residents have been carefully sorting their recyclables and dropping them off in the city’s large blue containers, for more than a year, the city has been tossing most types of recyclables in the trash.
For about two years, tin and glass have been dumped at a landfill in town, confirmed city spokesperson Richard McIntosh. The dumping ground is separate from the regular garbage, but once the tin and glass get ditched there, that’s it — the materials can’t be retrieved for recycling at a later date.
McIntosh said the city used to stockpile tin and sell it as scrap metal, but now the scrap metal market is “no longer available.”
Plastics, too, have been getting baled and then dumped in the landfill.
Revelations that Yellowknife’s recycling program isn’t what it appears to be came last week, after the Yellowknifer newspaper published a photo appearing to show municipal containers — with separate compartments for plastics, glass, tin, paper and cardboard — being emptied into a garbage heap at the city’s landfill.
McIntosh said a staff shortage at the baling facility was to blame. Between June 24 and July 7, the workers weren’t there to run the baler that compresses recyclables. Baling operations started up again on Monday, he said.
It turns out, however, that tossing recyclables into the trash has been common practice at the city for years.
Slump in plastics market
McIntosh said international market changes in 2018 hampered the city’s efforts to sell off its used plastics.
Yellowknife isn’t the only city seeking buyers for the stuff.
Municipalities across Canada have struggled to find a market for used plastics after China, which used to be a primary importer of the world’s recyclables, banned 24 types of recyclable material at the start of 2018.
McIntosh said Yellowknife produces two to three bales of plastics per month.
“The city has made efforts in the past year to find recyclers that would accept our plastics and continue to keep abreast to trends and global policy developments,” he said in an email on Wednesday.
Indeed, right now, other than beverage containers, only Yellowknife’s cardboard and some paper products are actually being recycled.
Keep recycling, mayor says
The city compresses about 32 bales of cardboard per month from its drop-off recycling containers, and another 46 bales from businesses, said McIntosh.
Cardboard bales are stockpiled at the landfill until a company in the South says it can take them.
According to a 2018 report on waste management in Yellowknife, recyclables at the landfill may be stored for several months before being hauled south.
McIntosh said that in 2018, the city sent 42 “loads” of cardboard and some boxboard and newspaper south, but didn’t specify how many bales were in each load.
Mayor Rebecca Alty told CBC on Tuesday that the system isn’t perfect.
Speaking about recyclables in general, Alty said the city doesn’t have enough indoor storage space to hold all the bales, and when they’re exposed to the elements, they’re no longer viable for sale.
Alty urged Yellowknife residents to continue sorting recyclables and taking them to the drop-off containers around town.
“We are working to divert as much as possible,” she said. “If you throw it all out, then there’s no possibility of diversion.”
Revenues from recycling
The shrunken recycling market has affected the city’s revenues, too.
Before 2018, the city brought in $65 per tonne of recyclables sold, said McIntosh. That amount has dropped to $10 per tonne.
According to 2019 municipal budget estimates, the city expects to bring in half as much from the sale of recyclables in 2019 ($50,000) as it did in 2018 ($100,000). It doesn’t expect those revenues to rise back up in the foreseeable future.
Coun. Niels Konge said the municipality could do more, locally, with the waste it produces.
“It’s crazy to send all this cardboard and paper waste down south. I think that we should be looking at what we can do with it in Yellowknife,” he said. For example, he added, “we could shred it, pelletize it and burn it in district heating systems.”
Konge said now is the time for Yellowknife residents and business owners to take stock of their consumption habits.
“If anything, what this whole thing teaches us as Yellowknifers is we’re at the end of the road and we should really think long and hard about how things are packaged that we buy,” he said.
“So people need to start making choices, and some of their choices should not just be about price, but also about what effect does this have on the environment.”
Related stories from around the North:
Finland: Only 1 % of Finnish waste sent to landfill, Yle News
Norway: Plastic on Svalbard: “I could never believe it was this bad”, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: Russian Navy sends clean-up team to Arctic trash dump, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Sweden generating growing amounts of plastic waste, Radio Sweden
United States: Industry launches campaign to free oceans from plastic… how serious is it?, Alaska Public Media