Yukonomist: Climbing Cardboard Mountain – Yukon News
Ah, Christmas in the Yukon. Hints of pure white snow adorn our spruce trees. The returning ravens soar and squawk in the thin winter light. And in the Marwell area, silhouetted against the distant mountains, Cardboard Mountain stretches from the Raven Recycling site to the Northern Lights.
Christmas is the peak of our consumerism. And therefore, when our secret love for cardboard reaches its peak.
We buy so much stuff. While many struggle to afford groceries and basic household items, others are so affluent that we also struggle with what to do with mountains of excess packaging and used goods.
Take the humble toaster, for example. You can buy one in Whitehorse this week, complete with six toast settings and self-centering guides for different bread thicknesses, for $10.48 including tax. That equates to just 18 minutes of work for the average Yukon worker.
If this toaster didn’t work, many would just throw it away. Even if you could find a toaster repair shop, the combined time it would take you to bring the toaster into the shop and have the staff examine it would certainly be more than 18 minutes. It’s so cheap that some might even throw it away just to get one in a different color.
This would mess up a toaster, as well as the new carton, plastic wrap and completely unnecessary trilingual toaster instruction manual.
You could put your ex toaster in the free store. But free shops in the Yukon have closed, buried under an avalanche of T-shirts and toasters that — in an era of labor shortages and high wage rates — don’t make financial sense.
This raises several problems. First, this hot toaster deal between the toaster buyer, the toaster shop, and the Asian toaster factory unknowingly imposes costs on everyone else. There are carbon emissions all along the chain. Your recycler must bear the cost of recycling the cardboard. Since China kindly stopped adopting bulk North American recycling a few years ago, used cardboard prices have hovered around what you would likely pay for used cardboard: zero.
Perhaps the biggest local problem is Whitehorse’s garbage dump, which is slowly filling up. According to Statistics Canada, northern Canadians produce 968 kilograms of waste per person per year, slightly more than the national average. We divert only 24 percent of this waste from landfills, slightly less than the national average. Now, our population is growing and the amount of waste per person—despite 20 years of recycling campaigns—is falling to less than 1 percent per year (assuming the Yukon is similar to Canada as a whole).
Think about what happens when the dump fills up. We can’t even allow the new Stevens quarry to extract cheap gravel at a time when everyone says they’re worried about the high cost of housing. Imagine how difficult it will be to get a permit for a new landfill. The only winners would be the truckers who bring us firewood from British Columbia because the Yukon government fails to issue enough firewood permits. On the return journey, these trucks will no longer be able to empty our waste, but take it to Fort Nelson for disposal.
Today we find ourselves in the odd situation—unique, as far as I can tell—of having a nonprofit organization manage the core of our city’s recycling system. Raven receives no core funding and is governed by a volunteer board of directors. It covers its costs by juggling money from the sale of recyclables that are priced above zero, government diversion loans, and various other programs.
The Yukon government is now considering what it calls a policy of extended producer responsibility, as currently practiced in nine provinces. These new regulations will require manufacturers and retailers to increase the amount they pay for waste management and recycling. While details are still being worked out, this promises new revenue for recycling organizations and an increase in the percentage of waste recycled.
The government discussion paper does not share estimates of how much this will cost overall, or how much we can expect the cost of food and household items to increase for Yukon families. For some things, like a can of beans, the additional cost should only be a fraction of a cent. For other items it may be higher. Think of the $7 environmental fee you pay for new tires, or the 40 cents I recently paid to buy a computer keyboard.
Businesses will do their best to reimburse consumers for these costs. It is fitting that we all share in the cost of disposing of our belongings, although in today’s inflationary times this will not be popular.
The real problem with Extended Producer Responsibility is that it won’t do much to improve recycling rates. We don’t know how many Yukoners volunteer to drop off recycling at Raven, or how many companies like Whitehorse pay Blue Bins for collection.
What we really need is a publicly funded, city-wide recyclables collection along the lines of trash and compost. According to 2017 U.S. data from Resource Recycling, only 9-15 percent of households participated in recycling when their city had a donation program (like Raven does today). With automatic curbside pickup, the rate increases to 60-80 percent. The 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report details how Sarasota, Florida, transitioned to bi-weekly pickup, with families dropping off all their recycling in a single curbside offering (similar to Whitehorse’s trash and compost pickup). The participation rate was 75 percent.
How much would it cost? According to Statistics Canada, there are about 12,000 private dwellings in Whitehorse. If everyone pays the $25 monthly collection fee to Whitehorse Blue Bins, that works out to $3.6 million per year. That’s probably an overestimate as there would be economies of scale and many of these households live in apartment buildings where collective collection is cheaper.
This money would dramatically increase recycling rates and extend the life of our landfill.
How should we pay for an improved recycling and waste management system? Citizens will end up paying, but there are many options, whether we do that via higher prices in stores, higher utility bills, or diverting some of the territory transfer payments for other uses. Higher costs in stores and utility bills tend to hit low-income Yukoners disproportionately hard, so I’d vote to allocate a few million of our billion-dollar transfer payment to the problem. And since the dump is steadily filling up, sooner rather than later.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the adventure novels Aurore of the Yukon, and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.