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Yukon’s endless recycling conundrum is a failure of government

There’s a letter to the editor in the Yukon News archive from Joy Snyder, executive director of Raven Recycling. It concludes: “We are looking forward to reaching an agreement with Whitehorse ...

There’s a letter to the editor in the Yukon News archive from Joy Snyder, executive director of Raven Recycling. It concludes: “We are looking forward to reaching an agreement with Whitehorse and Yukon governments to maintain recycling services in the long term for all Yukon people.”

That was seven years ago.

The territory’s for-profit and non-profit recycling operations have struggled to remain solvent because the fees they collect from the territory’s empty beverage containers don’t come close to covering the cost of recycling everything else, some 90 per cent of total recyclables.

We recognize that building a full-service recycling program in a small jurisdiction far from the recycling mills of the south is a challenging proposition for policymakers. But seven-plus years to sort out Yukon’s recycling woes is preposterous.

Both the City of Whitehorse and the territorial government have continued to kick the can on this file for too long. City council has punted important decisions and the territorial government has botched its own consultations on new fees for beverage containers and other recyclable products such as tires and electronics.

By the Yukon government’s own admission, it did not do a good enough job communicating with business owners about the how the program, which would expand the range of consumer products subject to point-of-sale fees, would work. Those business concerns are valid, although all businesses must already collect GST at the point of sale, so recycling levies are not an impossible task to manage. But the fees will not come into effect now until April 1, 2017, and it’s worth noting the Northwest Territories has already brought in a similar fee schedule for electronic waste.

It’s important to bring the commercial sector (which includes multi-unit residential buildings) and the construction industry into the recycling fold. Some 63 per cent of the city’s solid waste comes from the commercial sector, while nearly one third comes from construction.

At the city level, perhaps some staff and councillors feel like there isn’t pressure to solve Whitehorse’s recycling issue, given that by current estimates, the city’s landfill has enough space to last for another 41 years. But that isn’t the case everywhere. Dawson City’s Quigley landfill, for example, is rapidly approaching capacity and the town’s Conservation Klondike Society faces the same sort of cost pressures as the capital’s private-sector recyclers.

It is true that both levels of government offer diversion credits to recyclers to help keep them in business, but these credits clearly are not enough. Clearly, a range of funding sources must be made available to recyclers. One of the controversial elements of Whitehorse’s recently defeated mandatory curbside recycling program was the fact that it would increase monthly utility fees from $11 to $28 per month.

This gets the formula exactly backwards and punishes residents for doing what they ought to be doing, which is recycling their trash instead of throwing it away. Councillors should consider charging households for each bag of garbage they throw away, as is done in many municipalities, and use the funds to help subsidize recycling.

The Yukon government clearly erred when it rushed through the consultation process with business on new recycling levies. But with a territorial election nearly upon us, it’s too late to go back and the new date of April 1 will likely have to stand. Whichever party forms the next government must take solid waste issues much more seriously.

On Monday, when the Whitehorse curbside program went down to defeat, Coun. Betty Irwin suggested it may be time for the city to start over from scratch. “Let’s put on our big girl panties here and see if we can come up with something ourselves.” That seems like an incredible waste of all the myriad reports, debates and consultations undertaken over the last few years.

But the discussion over recycling has become so backed up that Coun. Irwin may have a point. Policymakers at both levels of government should ready their finest pair of undergarments and come up with a solution that works.