Broke Raven taps government coffers

After 20 years of financial independence, a cash-strapped Raven Recycling is opting for government support. On Thursday, the centre accepted a $320,000 grant from the Yukon government.

After 20 years of financial independence, a cash-strapped Raven Recycling is opting for government support.

On Thursday, the centre accepted a $320,000 grant from the Yukon government.

“This funding will ensure that the lights are on,” said Yukon Environment Minister Elaine Taylor.

Raven will be able to continue “doing what they do best: taking all our garbage and turning it into gold,” she said.

Despite the boost, Raven’s budget continues to fall short of what it enjoyed only 12 months ago.

With last September’s financial meltdown, commodity prices plummeted, leaving the centre stripped of a key source of revenue.

Recycled cardboard brought in $150 a ton before the crash. Now, Raven’s lucky to pull in $50 a ton.

“Before the crash in 2008, this was a pretty flush operation,” said Raven Recycling spokesman Lewis Rifkind.

This year, 18 employees will operate the centre, down from more than 20 employees last summer.

Pencils have been sharpened.

“My hours, for example, have been cut back rather dramatically,” said Rifkind.

The Raven warehouse is more crowded—and a bit messier—but the short-staffed operation is “staying on top of things,” he said.

“It’s bare bones,” said Raven Recycling board member Jacqueline Bedard.

“Since we’ve been in the news for the last six months, we’re getting more recycling than usual,” said Joy Snyder, Raven’s executive director.

“We’re so overloaded here, we’re almost saying, ‘Don’t bring us your recycling,’” she joked.

The $320,000 props up the centre for the next two years.

“We would not be able to continue offering recycling services if it wasn’t for this support,” said Bedard.

Long-term plans are already being drafted.

Yukon government funding will likely remain a permanent part of the centre. Municipal and First Nation governments may also be throwing cash into the ring.

And commodity prices might go up.

“When we speak to our peers in Alberta and BC, they foresee commodity prices going up, but we don’t know how much,” said Rifkind.

Whatever happens, Raven is going to have to deal with a lot more recycling.

As Yukon communities start to recycle—rather than burn—more of their refuse, the overwhelmed centre can only expect more torrents of cans, bottles and cardboard.

“We are going to have to rethink how we run this operation,” said Rifkind.

Between 12 and 14 per cent of Whitehorse’s trash gets recycled at Raven. The rest ends up at the Whitehorse landfill.

Other municipalities can divert up to five times that amount.

Raven is currently making the rounds of grant agencies in a multimillion-dollar bid to expand their facilities.

The Raven of the future looks to sort more efficiently, recover more materials from the waste stream, and have the capacity to deal with any sudden increases in recycling.

The new infrastructure would allow Raven to “encourage recycling instead of just keeping up,” said Shauna Jones, Raven Recycling’s special projects manager.

Independence from government was once a hallowed thing among Raven disciples.

“Raven Recycling has successfully functioned financially without any support from the territorial government or the city of Whitehorse since its inception,” said Bedard.

Government cheques have supported Raven before, but never as directly.

It takes $70 to bury a ton of garbage at the Whitehorse landfill. For every ton of waste that Raven diverts, Whitehorse sends them $50.

Raven employees also staff the Whitehorse landfill, earning the centre a steady contracting fee from the Yukon government.

The centre’s new electric forklift was bankrolled by a Whitehorse grant.

Even with a direct line to government coffers, Raven will maintain its vigorous autonomy.

“Nonprofits, especially in the environmental field, often have quite an adversarial relationship with governments,” said Rifkind.

What entwines Raven and the Yukon government is their common fervour for recycling.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Rifkind.

“YTG isn’t going to be running down here saying, ‘Oh, you haven’t filled out the forms in triplicate,’” he said.

Raven’s dependence on commodity prices puts the centre in a peculiar moral quandary. On the one hand, Raven is environmentalist. On the other, it’s beholden to the market forces of consumption.

The sooner consumers start buying more SUVs and wine racks, the quicker Raven can get back on its feet.

And if people pay too much attention to the other two Rs—reduce and recycle—Raven will be out of business.

“In a perfect world, Raven wouldn’t exist, because everything would either be reduced or reused; we wouldn’t be recycling,” said Rifkind.

“But this is the world we live in, and at the moment this is the most environmentally responsible way to deal with waste,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at