EDITORIAL: What is going on at the landfill?

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It’s likely you yourself have gone through the sacred motions of separating paper from plastic and glass and metal.
You’ve probably painstakingly rinsed the jars and cans before making a pilgrimage down to one of the city’s six blue bin recycling stations where you’ve made sure each item is in its proper bin.

You’ve done this, not just because the city has been systematically decreasing the amount of trash you can put to the curb since 2005, but out of a sincere and widely held belief that recycling prevents pollution and benefits society. But have you been wasting your time?

Last week, Yellowknifer revealed that at least some of the city’s collected tin cans, cardboard and plastics are being sent straight to the landfill.

Our news coverage revealed two major problems: one, the market for recyclables, particularly in China where most of this stuff used to wind up, is drying up; and two, somewhat inexplicably, because it’s summer and there should be lots of students around looking for work, staff shortages have hamstrung the system.

It’s pretty clear that Yellowknife has been swept up in a worldwide reckoning for an industry that has hit a rough patch.

As of January 2018, China stopped allowing the import of recyclable goods from many countries, including Canada. Additionally, a number of other countries have scaled back their import of our recycled materials.

Now we are struggling with excess amounts of recyclables with nowhere to send it.

It’s clear that the recycling industry is in flux and we at Yellowknifer can understand the dilemma the city is facing

What’s missing here is a coherent explanation from the city.

What is going on with the recycling program? What is the plan moving forward? How long has this been happening? Why was the public not informed earlier?

Mayor Rebecca Alty told us that the baler used to bundle recycled material for transport has been offline due to staffing shortages. How does that fit into the equation?

City councillor Niels Konge told us the city’s recyclables are being stored at the landfill, “so if the markets do change around, we have piles of this stuff.”

However, the photograph obtained by Yellowknifer appears to show a recycling truck emptying its contents into a massive pile of detritus at the landfill.

Is that stuff salvageable? Would it not need to be re-sorted? Who would undertake such a task?

The city’s initial reaction to our questions last week was to issue a one-sentence statement suggesting it was out of its hands due to the vagaries of the global recycling, plus a link to the city’s 397-page Strategic Waste Management Plan, which of course, didn’t address our questions at all.

Mayor Alty later followed up with a statement, which included the assertion that staff shortages were also to blame. Konge also told us the recyclable material was being set aside to be shipped when the city is able.

Yellowknife residents deserve better than this garbled communications mess, and the city should have been upfront about it in the first place.

One thing is clear. Recycling, as we know it, appears increasingly ineffective at curbing the piles of waste we as consumers are producing. While residents can do their part by avoiding extra packaging wherever possible, it musty be noted that just about everything shipped to Yellowknife comes with extra packaging.

Once upon a time, one’s box of blueberries came in an unsealed wooden box. Now it’s surrounded in plastic. Last week, we wrote about the need for tougher, made-in-NWT regulations on plastic packaging (“NWT should lead the way on plastic,” Yellowknifer, July 6). That editorial still stands.

Retailers can get ahead of the curve and demand their suppliers change their packaging practices.

Recycling is like a Potemkin Village.

It has the appearance of the something good but the secret is out. Yellowknife can’t keep up with all the so-called recyclables being set aside. We need a new solution, one with far less packaging.

That ought to mean fewer hours painstakingly separating so-called recyclables from our trash only for it to wind up in the dump anyway. What else makes better sense?