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Talking trash recyclables, to be precise

It's safe to say that plenty of paper, plastic, cardboard and other recyclable waste will be headed for Whitehorse's landfill in the near future, unless our municipal and territorial leaders get their act together.

It’s safe to say that plenty of paper, plastic, cardboard and other recyclable waste will be headed for Whitehorse’s landfill in the near future, unless our municipal and territorial leaders get their act together.

That’s bad news for anyone who thought these governments were serious about promising to work towards diverting half of all waste bound for the landfill by 2015.

Last week, Raven Recycling announced that it would stop accepting most recyclable waste, save for refundable beverage containers, by Oct. 15. The non-profit says it can’t keep its current, free drop-off for recyclables going without a funding boost.

Raven receives money in the form of waste diversion credits from the city and territory, totalling $150 per tonne. Yet that currently only covers about half of Raven’s cost to ship that waste out. The depot has warned since 2008 it needed a better funding arrangement, and this spring it indicated that a shut-down would be forthcoming unless something gave. That time has nearly come.

Community Services Minister Brad Cathers points out that there’s another recycling depot in town: P&M. Unfortunately, that operation looks sure be swamped if it has to handle Raven’s volume. Its owner, Pat McInroy, told the Whitehorse Star as much this week. “Unfortunately, we can’t handle all the non-refundable stuff for all the customers of Raven,” he said.

To put things in perspective, Raven currently handles about three-quarters of most types of the territory’s non-refundable, recyclable waste. In 2011, that meant shipping out 2,640 tonnes of paper, plastic, tin and cardboard. That’s enough waste, once compressed and baled, to fill about 120 tractor trailers.

Raven would like to see its diversion credits double. Cathers pointed out his government plans to hike the amount recyclers get paid to process beverage containers.

Raven offers two objections to this: it would take about a year for these additional funds to flow, which is longer than it can wait, and this is a strangely indirect and imprecise method of covering the cost of recycling. In effect, the territory’s beer guzzlers and soda-pop swillers would be propping up the cost of shipping out old newspapers, plastic bags and so forth.

As for that ambitious pledge to divert half of all waste from the landfill by 2015? Hitting that target seemed unlikely, even before Raven announced that it will become little more than a bottle depot. City officials say a year ago we were at 20 per cent. With new city rules in place, improvement has surely been made since then, but if Raven remains shut all progress will likely be quickly obliterated.

The Yukon Party promised during the last election it would strive to reach this diversion goal. Now Cathers is distancing himself from that vow, saying that it is “primarily” an individual responsibility to ensure that recyclable waste is properly disposed. In other words, not his problem.

This, of course, is silly. Once the remaining depot becomes overwhelmed, individuals won’t have any means to recycle at all. Where then, in Cathers’ libertarian fantasy world, will this waste then go?

It’s also wrong to characterize recycling as some sort of individual, charitable pursuit. If governments don’t have a responsibility in this, why did they make their promises to divert waste? Managing the landfill is obviously a collective responsibility. Environmental considerations aside, the sooner it fills up, the more ratepayers will have to pay for a pricey expansion of the facility.

Skeptics will want to know why Raven can’t continue to make a go of it, while P&M apparently can, with considerably fewer staff. This discrepancy is probably explained by how Raven processes a far higher volume of recyclable waste, and likely deals with a higher proportion of the non-profitable stuff. After all, that’s their mission.

It’s important to note that both depots currently benefit from public subsidies in the form of waste diversion credits.

P&M was gifted a $200,000 plastic-to-oil machine two years ago, paid for by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, that not only gets rid of a lot of money-losing plastic but pumps out enough oil to replace the recycler’s $18,000 annual heating bill.

Much of Raven’s equipment has also been purchased with public money. But that money has dried up lately, apparently out of the territory’s concern for funding an operation when there’s a private competitor.

It’s also worth noting that Raven’s share of the recycling pie has slowly shrunk since the Yukon Blue Bin Recycling Society started offering its pick-up service in a growing number of neighbourhoods. It hauls waste to P&M.

The convenience of curbside pick-up is undeniable. Yet many Blue Bin customers probably don’t realize that the yogurt containers they toss out, rather than being recycled, likely end up being melted down into oil to help heat P&M’s warehouse. This is still preferable to having plastic in the landfill, but Raven’s boosters say it’s not as environmentally friendly as recycling, since the energy required to truck products south is miniscule compared with the energy required to find new oil and pump it out of the ground.

In short, Whitehorse has a weird, jury-rigged recycling system that is probably not optimal. Elsewhere, cities usually directly operate recycling operations, or contract that work out. Seeing as our city and territory both employ minds paid to ponder such matters, it would be worth hearing whether alternate set-ups have been considered here.

But the city’s union wages would surely hike the cost of recycling, if the municipality moved things in-house. And if everything were folded into P&M, that would amount to a massive public subsidy of equipment handed over not just to a private firm, but one owned by the president of the Yukon Party.

Which brings us back to our current game of brinkmanship. Which, unfortunately, is not an unfamiliar spot for our territorial government to be in. Whether you’re a cash-poor recycling non-profit, any number of First Nations that assert they haven’t been adequately consulted, or the territory’s francophone school board looking for more resources, the story always seems the same: you spend a long time making your case to the government, whose ministers nod politely and then give you the brush-off.

It’s obvious why governments are skittish about boosting the money sunk into recycling. Some Yukoners reliably throw a fit whenever rates rise - particularly for those associated with municipal services.

But residents need to realize they pay the cost to recycle waste, one way or another. You can do it at the time of purchase as a surcharge, at the time of disposal as a tipping fee, or through the municipal or territorial taxes you pay. Anyone who isn’t able to start at this point shouldn’t to be part of the discussion.

As guys like Cathers are often fond of saying, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The same holds with free recycling.