Two months after it was revealed that plastics, tin, and cardboard were being dumped at Yellowknife’s landfill – a practice that has been going on for well over a year – the city says it’s doing all it can to find partners that will accept the materials as Canada’s recycling industry is struggling.
Right now, only cardboard is being accepted at the city’s recovery facility in Edmonton.
The situation has left some residents disappointed and disillusioned with some Yellowknifers citing a lack of transparency from municipal leaders, along with worries that the current conundrum could undo years of social and environmental progress.
Garth Wallbridge, a local lawyer who served on Ecology North’s board of directors in the 1990s, is one of them.
Wallbridge, who ran a recycling collection business in Winnipeg in the late 1970s, says the city needs to clearly convey to taxpayers what the current state of the recycling program is – and what it’s doing to solve the problem.
“I do not believe the city understands that by not being up front about what they are doing, and only offering platitudes when challenged, they are hurting any recycling program for decades to come,” Wallbridge told Yellownifer in a recent interview.
‘Do something today’
“They should be very public: ‘we are having difficulties with the program but we are doing x, y, and z.’ Instead, they say they are meeting and thinking and planning,” he continued. “I say do something today. That’s what leadership is.”
In July, a Yellowknifer investigation revealed that the city’s blue bins were being dumped at the landfill, a move the city initially blamed on summer staffing shortages at its baling facility.
However, it soon became apparent that recyclables – tin and glass faithfully sorted by residents across the city – had been landfilled at the site for years; the result, the city later said, of a declining international recycling industry.
Recycling market woes are a real and pressing issue felt by municipalities across the country.
In 2018, China, once the go-to importer of recyclables from Canada and much of the world, moved to prohibit about two dozen kinds of recyclables from entering its borders – a restriction that has, apparently, drastically affected Yellowknife’s recycling program.
“The impact of this change has affected Yellowknife’s ability to send recycling south to receivers,” stated a news release from the city on July 9, five days after Yellowknifer published its initial story.
Wallbridge said he accepts and understands the city is facing a global issue that has plagued cities across Canada. It’s the city’s lack of communication with residents, Wallbridge said, that upsets him.
“Tell me what the problems are. Tell the citizens what they are,” said Wallbridge.
“I think the city is trying to hide this instead of being upfront and that is indicated by the fact the city isn’t telling us until (media) ask them the questions,” said Wallbridge.
If the city can’t “think (its) way out of the current system,” Wallbridge said he worries Yellowknife’s recycling program will be harmed for a long time to come.
“To me this is critical. I don’t think they understand it’s taken a long time for people to become accustomed to the general concept of recycling,” he said. “It might take us another 20 years to get back to where we were a year ago in terms of commitment by the people.”
As a Yellowknife resident, Wallbridge said he’s willing to pay more in taxes if it means recyclables get shipped south – even at a loss – instead of being piled onto the city’s landfill.
“I just believe we can’t keep making a bigger mountain out of the dump,” he added.
In an email to Yellowknifer, spokesperson Alison Harrower stated the city is continuing its efforts to find “recycling partners” that will take cardboard, mixed paper, glass, tin and plastics.
“If there are no partners willing to take these materials, they are stored on site for a time while staff continue to seek opportunities,” wrote Harrower.
Once the materials are exposed to the elements and become contaminated, their value evaporates, she stated.
“They then have to be landfilled as there are no other options for the waste,” stated Harrower.
She told Yellowknifer the problem the city faces is a “national and complex issue.”
“If the city cannot find a receiver, there is no choice but to landfill,” she concluded.
‘I was really disappointed’
When news broke of Yellowknife’s broken recycling program, the messaging from city hall was the same across the board: keep recycling.
It’s a message Lani Cooke is sticking with – but for the Yellowknife resident, recycling simply isn’t the same following last summer’s revelations.
“When I found out about the plastics, I thought, ‘oh my goodness. All this work. All this focused energy on sorting out all the recyclables,” she said.
Cooke, who once described herself as a “hardworking” recycler, was profiled by Yellowknifer for her meticulous sorting of recyclables. She wanted to do her part to curb climate change and preserve nature.
“(Recycling) isn’t particularly fulfilling (anymore). It doesn’t feel like I’m doing my part,” said Cooke in light of the recent revelations.
While Cooke admits thinking “what’s the point?” of recycling after the news broke, she still sorts and recycles, but the situation has forced her to take different avenues in her pursuit to preserve the planet.
Cooke says recycling plastics is now lower on her list of priorities in terms of environmental action. She’s now moving to keep plastics from her home altogether.
If Cooke can’t be sure where her sorted plastics are going to end up, she wonders, “what’s the point of putting them into the recycling bin?”
Meanwhile, the city says it’s exploring “all waste diversion alternatives,” while continuing to urge residents not to give up on the program.
“We understand that some residents may be frustrated but we should not abandon sound waste management practices such as sorting of materials. Waste sorting is a key tactic that increases waste diversion from the landfill,” wrote Harrower.
The slumping international market is taking a toll on Yellowknife’s recycling revenue.
The city is anticipating $10,000 in recycling revenue by the end of 2019, a steep decline from what was raked in the year before.
2018 (total) $26,132.00
2019 (year to date) $5,298.00
(Source: the City of Yellowknife)