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Yukonomist: Climbing Cardboard Mountain

Ah, Christmas in the Yukon. Puffs of pure white snow garland our spruce trees. The returning ravens soar and squawk in the thin winter light. And, in the Marwell area silhouetted against the distant mountains, Cardboard Mountain reaches up from Raven Recycling’s compound towards the northern lights.
Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Ah, Christmas in the Yukon. Puffs of pure white snow garland our spruce trees. The returning ravens soar and squawk in the thin winter light. And, in the Marwell area silhouetted against the distant mountains, Cardboard Mountain reaches up from Raven Recycling’s compound towards the northern lights.

Christmas is the apogee of our consumerism. And, therefore, when our secret love affair with cardboard reaches its zenith.

We buy so much stuff. While many struggle to afford groceries and basic household items, others are so affluent that we also have the problem of what to do with piles of surplus packaging and pre-owned goods.

Take the humble toaster, for example. You can buy one in Whitehorse this week, complete with six toast settings and self-centering guides for different thicknesses of bread, for $10.48 including taxes. That represents just 18 minutes of work for the average Yukon employee.

If this toaster malfunctions, many would just throw it out. Even if you could find a toaster repair shop, the combined time it would take you to bring the toaster to the shop and have the staff look at it would surely be more than 18 minutes. It’s so cheap, some might even throw it out just to get one in a different colour.

This would add a toaster to the pile, as well as the new one’s cardboard box, plastic wrap and the totally unnecessary trilingual toaster instruction manual.

You could put your ex-toaster in the free store. But free stores in the Yukon have been closing, buried under an avalanche of t-shirts and toasters that — in a time of labour shortage and high wage rates — it doesn’t make financial sense to deal with.

This raises several problems. First, that hot toaster deal between the toaster buyer, toaster shop and Asian toaster factory is unwittingly imposing costs on everyone else. There are the carbon emissions along the whole chain. Your recycler has to eat the cost of recycling the cardboard. Since China stopped kindly taking North American recycling in bulk a few years ago, used cardboard prices hover around the amount you would probably pay for used cardboard: zero.

Perhaps the biggest local problem is the Whitehorse dump, which is slowly filling up. Statistics Canada says northern Canadians produce 968 kilograms of waste per person per year, slightly above the national average. We only divert 24 percent of that waste from landfills, slightly below the national average. Meanwhile, our population is growing and the amount of waste per person — despite 20 years of recycling campaigns — is falling at less than one per cent per year (assuming the Yukon is similar to Canada overall).

Think about what happens when the dump fills up. We can’t even approve the new Stevens quarry to get cheap gravel at a time when everyone claims to be worried about the high cost of housing construction. Imagine how hard it will be to get a new landfill approved. The only winners would be the truck drivers bringing us British Columbia firewood because the Yukon government can’t manage to approve enough firewood permits. In the future, on their return trip, instead of being empty these trucks can carry our garbage to Fort Nelson for disposal.

Today, we are in the strange situation — unique as far as I can tell — of having a non-profit manage the core of our city’s recycling system. Raven receives no core funding and is run by a volunteer board. It covers its costs by juggling money from selling recyclables that have a price higher than zero, government diversion credits and various other programs.

The Yukon government is now considering a so-called Extended Producer Responsibility policy, as currently operating in nine provinces. These new regulations will require producers and retailers to increase the amount they pay to manage waste and recycling. While the details are still being worked out, this promises to bring fresh revenue to recycling organizations and increase the percentage of waste being recycled.

The government discussion paper does not share estimates of how much this will cost in total, or how much we can expect the costs of food and household items to go up for Yukon families. For some things, such as a can of beans, the additional cost is likely to be a fraction of a cent. For other items, it may be higher. Think of the $7 environmental fee you pay on new tires or the 40 cents I recently paid when I bought a computer keyboard.

Businesses will do their best to flow these costs back to consumers. It is appropriate that we should all contribute to the cost of disposing of our stuff, although it won’t be popular in today’s inflationary times.

The real problem with Extended Producer Responsibility is that it won’t do much to improve recycling rates. We don’t know how many Yukoners voluntarily drop off recycling at Raven or how many pay businesses like Whitehorse Blue Bins for pickup.

What we really need is publicly-funded, city-wide recycling collection along the lines of garbage and compost. According to 2017 US data in Resource Recycling, only 9-15 per cent of households participated in recycling when their city had a drop-off program (like Raven today). With automatic curbside pickup, the rate goes up to 60-80 per cent. The 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report describes how Sarasota, Florida switched to bi-weekly pickup with families putting all their recycling in a single curbside bid (similar to Whitehorse garbage and compost pickup). The participation rate hit 75 percent.

How much would this cost? Statistics Canada says Whitehorse has about 12,000 private dwellings. If each paid Whitehorse Blue Bins’ monthly pick-up fee of $25, that works out to $3.6 million a year. That is likely an overestimate, since there would be economies of scale and many of those households live in apartment buildings where bulk pickup is cheaper.

This money would dramatically increase recycling rates and prolong the life of our dump.

How should we pay for an upgraded recycling and waste management system? Citizens will pay in the end, but there are many choices about whether we do so via higher prices in the shops, higher municipal utility bills or diverting some of the territorial transfer payment from another use. Higher costs in the shops and utility bills tend to hit lower-income Yukoners disproportionately hard, so I would vote for dedicating a few million of our billion-dollar transfer payment to the problem. And, with the dump steadily filling up, sooner rather than later.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.