Recycling the north

🕔Apr 07, 2009

Every Wednesday, John Wesley makes the rounds. Some days he picks up discarded filing cabinets and old computers; other days it’s mostly paper and recyclable plastics.

You got junk? Well, it’s likely this Skidegate Band Council maintenance worker and assistant water-treatment-plant operator knows where to take it. If it’s not accepted at the recycling depot in Queen Charlotte, he’ll find your old three-ring binders another home.

Picking up recycling isn’t his official job, but he has to drive around to pick up water samples each week anyway and, for Wesley, taking a reusable load of pillow packs out of one organization’s garbage and bringing it to the local pre-school has its own rewards. “The kids needed something to pop,” he says.

No matter where the bubble wrap, old magazines, and abandoned plywood end up, Wesley’s raison d’etre is keeping this stuff out of the Islands’ landfill. So he’s pleased that the band council has made it possible for him to provide this much-needed service for businesses and organizations in the village.

Good thing, too, because early in 2008 the Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District (SQRD) realized the landfill is filling up rather quickly for such a small population. Laurie Gallant of Footprint Environmental Strategies presented a January 2008 report to the SQRD in which she says islanders are dumping garbage at such a rate that Haida Gwaii’s landfill has only three decades left.
In the future a consultant like her would not, in good conscience, recommend creating another landfill. “Landfills displace ecosystems and create concerns around leachate, especially when it comes to ground and surface water,” she says.

The silly part is that a huge percentage of what goes to the dump could easily be diverted. She estimates that 40 percent of stuff going into the Islands’ landfill is organics—kitchen scraps, garden waste and paper products.

Whether it goes to a backyard composting system or a community-wide service, none of that material needs to be taking up precious space in the landfill.

Gallant also works with the Regional District of Kitimat Stikine (RDKS) and runs their Zero Waste program. She says Zero Waste’s goal is 100 percent diversion of organics and 100 percent product stewardship (keep reading to find out more on this).

She says programs like the RDKS’s landfill diversion credit program, which pays private recycling companies by the tonne to keep things out of the landfill, are one way to get started.

In communities like Hazelton, new businesses like Hazelton Rezcycling are offering residential and commercial pickup to help people divert garbage. According to Gallant, they also provide grants to people who want to deliver education programs to help people reduce what they send to the landfill.

The trash crash
When the commodity markets took a nosedive last fall, so did prices for things like plastics and paper fibre. According to the New York Times, mixed paper prices fell from $105 to $25 per tonne during the last two months of 2008. Tin dropped from $327 per tonne to just $5 by the end of the year.

Most in the recycling scene are certain that the “trash crash” will turn around, but in the meantime, finding a place to stockpile resources is a challenge.

Gallant thinks composting is an especially good idea for would-be recyclers. Transportation costs are a huge barrier in recycling, so Gallant is keen to find solutions that don’t involve trucking products to far-away markets. “Composting is the silver bullet for crashing recycling markets,” she says.

Tim Deschamp at the SQRD says forming partnerships with other regional districts may also help create efficiencies in the Northwest, especially for communities like Terrace that don’t have the processing and sorting infrastructure that exists in Prince Rupert.
But as Terri McClymont at the Recycling and Environmental Action Planning Society (REAPS) in Prince George says, the first responsibility falls on the consumer. “We need to be personally responsible for our own waste.”

In other words, consumers should make choices in the store, knowing what can be easily recycled in the north. If recycling options don’t exist, choose the product that has the least impact.
Buying mustard in a glass jar rather than a plastic squeeze bottle, for example, is a better option. Glass is not only more easily recycled than plastic, it also has a lower impact. “It’s basically super-heated sand.”

Over the past few years, McClymont has seen a huge increase in what can be recycled in Prince George, from batteries and household hazardous waste to paper products, clothing and computers. “Everything but drywall,” she says.
Responsible producers

That said, McClymont is looking forward to the next extended producer responsibility (EPR) program. These programs, already in place for products like tires, household paint, and beverage containers, involve charging the consumer an eco-fee when an item is purchased.

Eco-fees are considered cradle-to-grave management, says Mairi Welman of the Recycling Council of BC. The consumer buys a tire, pays the fee, then takes it back to the store or depot to reclaim the fee; then the product’s producer takes over the end-of-life management.

The idea is that producers will make an effort to use more recyclables in their products and less of everything else if they are forced to deal with the disposal of their products. “Those who make packaging would ‘design for the environment,’” she says.
With the market downturn, low-grade plastics (numbers three through seven), like those found in yogurt containers and plastic clamshells, are the most problematic. Not only are they worth next to nothing in the crashed market, they are made from a non-renewable fossil fuel—oil.

“At the bottom of all this is the consumer, and what we implicitly agree to when we buy our yogurt.”

The good news is that the province of BC is committed to rolling out another EPR program every two years. The most recent roll-out was for e-waste or computers and by 2010 all electronic appliances will be returnable. According to RCBC, BC is leading the way in product stewardship in Canada, while provinces like Ontario are still working on their first policies.

Farewell to plastic bags
But for some municipalities things aren’t moving fast enough. Tofino voted to ban plastic bags in 2007, and councilors in Metro Vancouver have recently called for a province-wide ban of this ubiquitous non-biodegradable waste.

Welman thinks province-wide regulations are the way to go, and the Union of BC Muncipalities is also lobbying toward that end. “Then whoever sells them has to take them back and it’s more efficient and fair for everyone to have the same rule. It’s also easier for industry to comply,” she says. For example, in Tofino, the ban on plastic bags is voluntary, so not all retailers take part. In other places stores have started charging for plastic bags instead.

McClymont is looking forward to further ways to reduce packaging and hopes the next EPR requires detergent and other cleaning-product manufacturers to look after their waste. “These things take up a lot of space in the landfill.”

Welman says that by taking organics out of the garbage, along with the EPR programs coming down the line, communities can divert more than 80 percent of what presently goes into landfills.

Even with the added challenges, recycling in the north has come a long way, but there’s still a lot farther to go. On Haida Gwaii, for example, people are paying eco-fees for new computers—but have nowhere to take their old ones. Some communities have facilities to take used oil and others do not.

Wesley works around the computer problem by finding people who can rebuild and reuse old electronics, but the situation is not ideal. To top it off, islanders learned their recycling system is leaching cash to the tune of $50,000 a year, mainly due to transportation costs.

As Tim Deschamp says, more investment in waste management and recycling is essential, and it’s an issue that communities around the province are starting to face. Hopefully more people like Wesley will step up and do their part.

Recycling in your community

Prince George: Check out the Regional District’s website for the best place to take recyclables in your area.

Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Smithers, Houston and more: Brochures about recycling in these communities can be found at:

Hazelton: For residential and business pick-up Rezcycling Ph: 842-7090

Terrace: The Regional District of Kitimat Stikine’ Zero Waste strategy is found here:

Prince Rupert: Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District

Eco-Management Recycling: Residential and business pick-up:

Do Your Part: Residential and business 

Don’t forget the bottle depots! Sometimes local students or other groups will pick up your returnables for fundraising purposes.