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Plastic waste an ‘untapped resource’ in the Yukon

Whitehorse-based company Yukon Plastics uses waste plastic to create new products

Plastic recycling and recycling in general have received increased attention in Whitehorse and across the Yukon in recent months.

In the territorial capital, the decision by Raven Recentre to stop taking soft plastics and begin phasing out their 24-hour public drop-off bins has left many Whitehorse residentswondering where they’ll dispose of their recyclable waste. The move by Raven Recentre, formerly known as Raven Recycling, has pushed governments to begin exploring curbside recycling in the city.

Outside Whitehorse, some Yukon communities have been grappling with the loss or impending loss of their community transfer stations.

Amid this evolving waste-management landscape, two Yukoners have taken matters into their own hands, finding a way to repurpose plastic waste outside the government and NGO apparatuses. Mother-and-son team Janna Swales and 11-year-old William Powell co-founded Yukon Plastics late last year, intending to transform waste plastics into usable products and accessories.

The company currently produces two products for sale — rings and soap dishes — made from waste plastic collected from various sources in the territory.

Despite Yukon Plastics being a relatively young entity, the idea behind the company took root in Swales’ head many moons ago.

“I like making things. And some years ago, I stumbled across people making things with plastic, cutting boards and stuff like that. And my son was maybe six at the time, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting thing to do.’ And we made one [cutting board] in the oven,” Swales says, adding that the experiment didn’t progress any further at the time.

However, after receiving her tax return last year, she decided to revisit the idea of creating with plastic. She left her oven out of the equation this time and invested her newfound funds in an injection moulding machine for plastics.

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Yukon Plastics co-founder William Powell stands with the injection moulding machine used to make Yukon Plastics products. (Courtesy/Janna Swales)

The machine works by injecting melted plastic into a mould for a desired product. Once the molten plastic is inside the mould, it cools and hardens before being removed and having the excess material trimmed off to get a finished product.

At her home in Whitehorse, Swales demonstrates to the News how she makes a soap dish and it’s a surprisingly quick process. The most time-consuming part of creating a product is almost certainly chopping up the larger pieces of waste plastic into sizes small enough to be inserted into the injection moulding machine — a task done with gardening shears.

The waste plastic she uses in her products ranges from liquid laundry detergent jugs to damaged shopping baskets from grocery stores. It comes from both community members and businesses.

“Right now, with a small amount of word of mouth, there’s more plastic than I can deal with. Like, everybody wants to get rid of it. And so, what I want to do is just kind of change my thinking into [waste plastic] being an untapped resource,” Swales says.

Powell and herself plan to move beyond soap dishes and rings in the not-so-distant future. New Yukon Plastics products in the pipeline include coasters, stools and — harkening back to the duo’s roots in experimenting with plastic — cutting boards. There is also a desire to create products tailored to life in the Yukon, including fish bonkers and ice scrapers.

“I think it would be really neat to take this waste plastic of the Yukon and turn it into, well, something that — for people who go fishing, for example — just becomes one of their lovely possessions,” Swales says.

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A freshly minted Yukon Plastics soap dish is shown still in the mould. (Matthew Bossons/Yukon News)

Asked what inspired her to pursue the idea of localized plastic product manufacturing in the Yukon, Swales highlights the unique waste challenges faced in Canada’s far north.

“I think we’re all aware that plastic as waste is a problem — and recycling is one of the solutions. But in the Yukon, we’re very far from recycling centers, and perhaps this is something that we can do here. And maybe in a significant way, like, to take a goodly amount of this waste plastic and process it here,” Swales says.

She adds that it would be great if all the plastic that comes into the Yukon stayed here and was repurposed instead of being shipped out to be recycled elsewhere. And if plastic were to leave, she hopes that it would be as a value-added product.

One idea that Swales continually comes back to is viewing plastic as an “untapped resource.” She argues that, during the gold rush, the chief resource in the territory was (you guessed it) gold, although these days, plastic waste could be considered one of the most significant untapped resources.

Swales, who is passionate about history and whose day job is as a museumist at the Yukon Transportation Museum, also notes that plastic is closely tied to one of the territory’s most well-known historical events — the arrival of the Alaska Highway.

“So, one of the things that I ruminated on quite a bit is that the Alaska Highway coming into the Yukon is almost exactly the same time as plastics coming into the Yukon. It’s kind of like they came at the same time,” she says.

“The Alaska Highway certainly brought a lot of things, including pain and change and […] connection as well. But maybe the most significant thing is massive change, and we could say that plastic, around that time, caused change as well. I would like to see how we undo that a little bit.”

Contact Matthew Bossons at matthew.bossons@yukon-news.com



Matthew Bossons

About the Author: Matthew Bossons

I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver and studied journalism there before moving to China in 2014 to work as a journalist and editor.
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