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The business of recycling

Raven Recycling's free public recycling drop off service is no more. The drop-off windows for tin, plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, Tetra Paks and styrofoam were shuttered this morning.

Raven Recycling’s free public recycling drop off service is no more.

The drop-off windows for tin, plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, Tetra Paks and styrofoam were shuttered this morning.

The society says the territory’s recycling system is broken, and it cannot hold on any longer.

The bottle depot, free store and other services will continue to operate.

It costs about $330 a tonne to process and ship out recyclables, and the society brings in $150 a tonne in diversion credits from the Yukon government and City of Whitehorse combined.

Revenue from the sale of the materials, low since commodity prices crashed in 2008, do not come close to making up the difference, according to the society.

It has been pushing governments for a sustainable funding arrangement since 2008.

Planned changes to the territory’s beverage container regulations will not come soon enough, according to Raven.

But what really happens to Yukon’s recyclable materials after they get dropped off at Raven?

And how much should we be willing to spend on recycling them?

In terms of energy, recycling a product is always more efficient than making something new from scratch, said Joy Snyder, executive director of the Raven Recycling Society.

The energy to truck plastics to recycling centres on backhaul routes is minuscule compares with the energy it takes to find new oil, pump it out of the ground and process it, she said.

The reason why recycled material doesn’t always appear to cost less than new materials, despite lower energy costs, is because of subsidies in resource extraction industries, said Snyder.

Governments fund exploration programs, help pay for new roads, subsidize training and offer tax incentives to companies looking for minerals, oil or timber.

The recycling industry is not propped up in the same way. If it were on equal footing, recycling would always cost less, according to Snyder and her colleagues.

“We’d have to ship them all the way to the moon and back before it wouldn’t be practical,” said Danny Lewis, the society’s education co-ordinator.

He’s in charge of knowing all about what happens to your recycling, and telling Yukoners about it.

Glass is the only product they take in that ends up in the landfill, he said.

“We’ve been trying to find an alternative for glass, but it’s extremely heavy, so it’s extremely expensive to ship, and the manufacturing companies down south need a huge volume of it to really make it worth their while,” said Lewis.

Some beer bottles go to Yukon Brewing, others can be shipped south to be refilled.

But pretty much everything else gets ground up into glass pellets or sand.

Some people take the glass pebbles for their gardens, he said.

“It sparkles in the sunshine. It looks great and helps aerate the soil.”

Sand can be used in sand bags, or for the roads in the winter, he said.

But the society takes in way more glass than it can find uses for locally, he said.

It’s not ideal to have it filling up the landfill, but it’s a clean product and it’s basically just taking up space.

Glass is also the product that costs the most to recycle relative to making it from scratch. The energy savings are marginal.

Plastics that are dropped off at Raven are sorted and then compressed into cube bales of about a tonne each.

They’re shipped south and can end up in recycling centres as far away as India.

There’s a logic to sending plastics to India or China, where new plastic gadgets are often made.

The plastics you recycle can end up as fleece clothing, food containers, garbage bins, lawn chairs, carpets, plastic lumber or any number of other products, said Lewis.

Plastic is recyclable indefinitely, although it always requires an injection of new plastics or chemicals, he said.

Raven does its best to make sure its plastics are recycled in an environmentally responsible way, said Lewis.

“We have done our best to make sure all of our brokers are reputable and that all of the places they send it to, they understand what we’re doing and why we do it.

“It’s not just about getting it out of the territory, and then who cares where it goes. We can’t trace every bale and everywhere that it goes to but we have done our research enough to know that most of the places things are going are certainly a more environmentally responsible location.”

Paper can be recycled about seven times before the fibres degrade to the point where they are less valuable, said Lewis.

Then, they can used in lower-grade products like newsprint and egg cartons.

Eventually the fibres will be too short to make even those things, but then the material is compostable, he said.

Metal products like aluminium, steel, copper and brass can be recycled very efficiently, said Lewis.

Aluminium in particular can be recycled into the same product, with no new injection of material, indefinitely.

“It really doesn’t make sense to dig more metals out of the ground and create more aluminium to make more cans because we’ve already created the cans. We can simply recycle them.”

The United States throws enough cans in landfills each month to rebuild every commercial airplane in that country, he said.

Here in the Yukon, costs of landfilling are increasing.

The closer the current landfill is to the end of its life, the more valuable the remaining space becomes.

When it closes, the government will have to find a way to pay for the closure and the environmental cleanup as well as for a new landfill with stricter environmental standards than what had been in place before.

Snyder said she is hopeful that the Yukon government and City of Whitehorse will step in to support recycling in the territory.

They are waiting on a report, due in November, that will show some of the options, she said.

“I don’t think it will be long for the government to step up and do something.”

Yukon’s recycling can still be dropped off at P&M Recycling, the dump, or through the Blue Bin Recycling Society.

The community has been very supportive, said Snyder.

“Since we announced the closing, people have been great. They’ve come upstairs and said how much recycling means to them. They have written letter and sent emails. I really appreciate the show of support.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at