When it’s finally recycled, that Pepsi can you threw away at Raven Recycling will have more kilometres on it than the rusty 1977 Oldsmobile your grandfather drives.
Aluminum mined in Suriname was shipped to China where it became a can; shipped to Vancouver and filled with cola; trucked to Whitehorse to be bought and consumed; then dropped off at Raven before being shipped to China, via Vancouver, to be recycled.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Lewis Rifkind of Raven Recycling. “Trucks are trucking up bottles full of beer then trucking empty beer bottles back to Vancouver and Calgary.
“It’s unbelievable some of the distances some of this stuff travels.”
And as a result, while earnest recyclers are everywhere on a typical day at Raven, throwing plastic, newsprint, tin and aluminum in the appropriate bins, Rifkind isn’t chuffed about the situation.
“Recycling is a salve to people’s conscience but it’s not very effective,” he says. “People just drop their stuff up here, and imagine that’s it — ‘I’ve done my good deed,’ and it just goes away. People don’t even think of where the stuff’s going.”
Welcome to the strange, contradictory world of Raven Recycling.
The directors hope the place will go out of business one day, but are still try to improve recycling rates … even though that creates greenhouse gases; the company takes care of what municipalities do everywhere else in Canada; and every potential improvement brings more costs.
Rifkind works at a recycling company but prefers the other two environmental ‘Rs’ — reducing and reusing.
But many people wrongly see recycling as the main answer to waste and a convenient way to reduce guilt created by their lifestyles, he says.
And this becomes a problem when you consider just how heavily recycling depends on burning fossil fuels.
Most recycled goods collected at Raven and from depots in each of the communities are trucked to Vancouver, says Joy Snyder, Raven’s executive director.
From there, newsprint stays put to be recycled at a mill in the city; cardboard and mixed paper head to Tacoma, Washington, for recycling; most everything else heads east to China, she says.
Some of the material, like aluminum, doesn’t require much energy to be recycled, but some, like Tetra Paks, require enormous amounts, she says.
In 2006, Raven prevented about 2,000 tonnes of material from going into the city’s landfill — about 10 per cent of the 20,000 tonnes we put there every year.
The amount of waste Whitehorse produces is always rising, but recycling levels aren’t keeping pace, says Rifkind.
Whitehorse could divert as much as 8,000 tonnes of material from the landfill, he says.
“But we seemed to have plateaued at about 10 per cent.”
While Rifkind doesn’t necessarily think recycling is the answer, sending more into a landfill instead of diverting it into recycling is still worse.
So, despite ethical reservations about rising consumer waste, the company is examining ways to increase recycling rates.
The Raven depot itself is “the most inconvenient step in the whole recycling process,” says Snyder.
The company is studying the economics of building neighbourhood drop-off points for recyclables, and even a blue box curbside collection program to improve recycling rates, she says.
Bans on certain materials being allowed into the landfill — thus diverting them to recycling — are also being examined, adds Rifkind.
But every idea has a cost.
“Everything that comes up to the Yukon comes in a cardboard box,” he says. “If the city tomorrow banned cardboard from its landfill, we would be drowning in cardboard; we might not have the capacity to deal with it. So we need them (the city) to build extra infrastructure, which requires a fair chunk of change.”
And there’s the rub.
Unlike most cities in Canada, the municipal government in Whitehorse does not pay for recycling services.
City officials are helpful and positive to work with, says Snyder.
But she and Rifkind both recognize Whitehorse is getting a lot of recycling and paying comparatively modest sums.
“We’ve sort of over-functioned, so they don’t take responsibility for it,” says Snyder. “The city gets 10 per cent recycling and it costs them very little.”
Whitehorse pays Raven about $24,000 per year in solid-waste diversion credits.
But the city has started diverting about 1,000 tonnes of compost from the landfill every year through a curbside collection program — and that’s “just brilliant,” says Snyder.
Still, the situation is a bit different pretty much everywhere else in the Western world.
“In every other community in North America or Europe, the municipality usually does take some responsibility for recycling, because it costs,” says Rifkind. “Perhaps the city should get more involved.”
But without missing a beat, Rifkind quickly points out the concept of Whitehorse taking over isn’t a simple one, economically speaking.
Were a blue box program started by Whitehorse, the territory’s beverage container rebate program — which pays up to 25 cents for large bottles — could bite the city in the foot, he says.
“People would likely keep their aluminum cans and take them to recycling centres to make money from them, which could stick the city with money-losing recyclables,” says Rifkind.
“All the city would be picking up is baked bean tins, jam jars, basically money-losing items. We would divert stuff from the landfill, but would it be enough to justify the cost of a blue box program? There is no hard and fast answer.”
Recycling more also requires more sorting facilities and machinery, all of which costs money, he adds.
The Raven Recycling Society was started in 1989 after local environmentalists saw Whitehorse had no municipal recycling program and wanted to change the situation.
In 1992, the company lobbied to have territorial refunds for beverage bottles — one of the first jurisdictions in Canada to do so.
That change now effectively pays to recycle everything people drop off at the depot.
The economics of recycling aren’t always rosy.
While aluminum cans and beverage containers are moneymakers, fine paper just breaks even and everything else — from plastic to the evil Tetra Paks — actually costs money to recycle and divert from the landfill.
Raven uses profits from its bottle return facility to recycle the money-losing material.
The company recently upgraded the return facility as well as about $60,000 in other improvements inside and out, says Snyder.
The money came from several territorial government funds.
More money would, of course, be helpful, but both Snyder and Rifkind say it’s hard to get.
“We ask for it all the time,” says Snyder of territorial cash.
Rifkind adds that while it’s possible to access money from recycling funds and programs, trying to get governments and private donors to put money into reuse programs or reduction campaigns is nearly impossible.
“Trying to get funding or programs to try to get people to reduce is the antithesis of our capitalistic society,” he says.
“In the short term, we should be doing high-mileage recycling, but we should be aiming at putting Raven out of business.”