Yellowknife residents could be forgiven for feeling somewhat startled by newspaper images of giant blue bins of recycling appearing to be offloaded into the city’s landfill.
As first reported by NNSL on Friday, the City of Yellowknife has begun ditching some recycling at the dump – rather than sending it south, as is the usual practice – in what City Hall is calling a temporary measure.
Officials said a staff shortage at a baling facility used to compact and store recycling, and the ongoing challenges following China’s decision to drastically reduce the amount of recycling it imports for processing, are contributing factors.
Mayor Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio the City began sending some recycling to its landfill two weeks ago, and will have to continue doing so for the time being.
She was not able to give a date for the service returning to normal, but said the City was working as hard as it could to ensure that happens soon.
In the meantime she urged Yellowknifers to continue recycling, pledging the resumption of normal service – in which recyclables stop heading for the landfill – is a high priority.
There are a number of questions about what’s happening. On this page, we’ve tried to answer some of them.
If we missed a question you’d like to know more about, contact us. If it’s one we think a lot of residents would like answered, we’ll try to get more information.
Sorry, my recycling is heading to the landfill? That’s awful.
“It doesn’t look good,” Mayor Alty admitted when we asked her about this.
“There’s a global crisis with recycling,” she said, referring to China’s decision last year to – in her words – “shut the door to accepting recycling from other countries.” (More about this below.)
That has been a concern for a while, but it was compounded recently because of short-staffing, Alty said.
“Employees were not available to operate the baling facility so some of the recycling was put into the landfill,” she told Cabin Radio on Friday.
“When we are back up and staffed, we will be continuing business as usual.”
Is the stuff just being thrown into the landfill or stockpiled to deal with later?
Getting a definitive answer on this has been tricky, in part because it sounds like councillors were sometimes talking about two different problems.
From what we can tell, the China problem – nowhere to send some of the recycling – has been leading the City to “bale and bury” some recycling, in the words of Councillor Steve Payne.
Payne said: “It’s a temporary measure, hopefully soon we’ll have a permanent fix … we’re always on the lookout for new options to get our cardboard to market.”
Councillor Niels Konge added: “It’s getting put in different piles at the dump, it’s not getting all mixed up.”
But the mayor told Cabin Radio, quite clearly, that “some of the recycling was put into the landfill” once no staff were available to run the baling machine – which sounds like a different, newer issue than the one Payne and Konge felt they were being asked about.
Alty said she can’t say with certainty exactly how much recycling has gone direct to landfill, without being sorted into piles, but said it’s been happening for “about two weeks.”
(Konge and Payne expressed surprise at being questioned on the topic, saying the City had been following the same process for months. This suggests they were discussing the process of baling and storing recycling in the absence of anywhere south to send it, rather than the more recent problem whereby – according to Alty – some recycling was heading straight into the landfill, unsorted.)
I think I follow that. How come we weren’t told anything about this?
The China stuff has been discussed publicly before at council meetings. The baler issue of the past two weeks has not, and no City announcement was made to tell residents that their recycling is being temporarily sent straight to landfill.
Asked why the City didn’t tell us, Alty replied: “We were hoping to get it [the baler, and the usual recycling process] back on quicker. Communicating that [the problem], and then communicating the change back to recycling – we didn’t think we’d have enough time.”
Alty acknowledged that decision could have a negative impact on residents’ faith in the system, but she expressed hope that they would understand the temporary nature of the baler staffing shortage, and keep recycling.
“We want to maintain residents’ faith in the system. This is temporary,” she said.
“We really want to make sure that residents continue recycling. Don’t give up on it. Don’t break the habit.”
Councillor Konge, a little more bluntly – we know, you’re shocked – said: “At the end of the day, there’s lots of things people aren’t told.
“This is an operational deficiency right now. How come Cabin Radio doesn’t tell us when they have operational deficiencies?
“You’re never going to figure out what everyone wants to know.”
(As a point of fact, you can hear a lengthy list of our operational deficiencies on most of our morning shows. Some days, the show itself is the operational deficiency.)
Hang on, so we’re blaming China?
Sort of. For more than a year, China has placed severe restrictions on imported plastics and mixed paper – meaning countries are having to look elsewhere for places to send their recycling. The decision has caused chaos in North America’s recycling market, making recycling too costly for many municipalities to conduct business as usual.
China took that decision because so much recycling was arriving in far too contaminated a state to be properly processed. Mayor Alty says Yellowknife’s recycling is considered high-grade and barely contaminated, but China is not about to start making one-off exceptions for Yellowknifers, lovely though we are and despite our attractive aurora displays.
As a result, it’s getting harder to find homes down south for Yellowknife’s recycling, since southern companies have nowhere to pass it on (at least, nowhere cost-effective).
However, this has been the case for many months now, so it alone is not the reason why recycling would suddenly start getting diverted to landfill in recent weeks.
You’re saying this has only been going on for a couple of weeks, but I’ve heard all kinds of rumours, for ages, about Yellowknife’s recycling not being recycled the way people might expect.
We have also heard those rumours, but Mayor Alty insisted on Friday that this two-week period is the first time anything untoward has happened to your recycling – to her knowledge.
We currently have no evidence to suggest anything odd was happening to recycling before that point. (If you know otherwise, feel free to get in touch, although we’re going to need solid proof that your solid waste theory is solid.)
Can’t we fix some of the longer-term processing issues locally?
That’s exactly what the City says it’s trying to do, with help from partners like Ecology North and Kavanaugh Bros.
Alty said items like tin still have value down south so will continue to be sent away for processing, while glass is already reused locally. “We have been crushing it and using it for fill,” she said.
Now, new options for cardboard and plastics will be explored.
“We can look at turning cardboard into pellets for use in boilers,” said Alty, “but plastic is one of the challenges.
“Scandinavian countries have been looking at incinerators, so waste to energy, and that may be an option,” she added.
In other words, if you were looking to open up a waste incineration plant in Yellowknife, now might be a really good time for that.
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.