Learn why Tim Allen's biography doesn't belong in Yellowknife compost

The city's compost program has been phased in over four years, with the final neighbourhood joining in November. A compost specialist says that while most residents are composting correctly, there are still some strange objects showing up at the facility.

City and Ecology North working to educate residents on waste disposal

A sampling of strange objects people have thrown into compost in Yellowknife. Ecology North compost specialist Dawn Tremblay must pick through the compost every time it’s collected to pick out objects like this, so they don't contaminate the pile. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Tim Allen's 1994 autobiography Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man may or may not be garbage, but the City of Yellowknife's compost facility definitely doesn't want it — even if it is technically compostable. 

The book is one of dozens of strange items found by Ecology North's compost specialist Dawn Tremblay at the facility. 

Tremblay stresses most residents do get it right when composting. 

But peculiar objects, like stuffed toys, Keurig K-Cups, sunglasses, curling irons, old electronics and even glass shards, still end up in the pile. 

"Sometimes we'll see a compostable bag with compost inside, and it's looking great," she said. "But it will have a plastic bag around it, so it's double bagged with plastic — it's so close except for that plastic bag."

Tremblay said she can understand why this happens, as bigger municipalities allow plastic bags in compost because they have equipment to mechanically separate it from organic waste. 

But in Yellowknife, Tremblay picks it all out herself by hand — and she's seen it all.
These Halloween decorations are an example of what shouldn't be composted. The skulls lit up and made spooky noises as Ecology North compost specialist Dawn Tremblay passed by a compost pile in –40 C weather. (Randi Beers/CBC)

"One of the operators and I were out in the pile. It was December," she said. "It was dark … we were picking through, pulling out things and all of a sudden the creepy soundtrack from like a haunted house starts … and then I found these."

Tremblay laughed and held up a string of Halloween lights shaped like human skulls.

The city's compost program has been phased in over four years, with the final neighbourhood joining in November. In 2017, she said the city diverted a grand total of 511 tons of waste from the dump. 

Heat it up, break it down

The road from compost to usable soil, which Tremblay monitors at the solid waste facility, can take one to two years.

The pile begins to heat up as microbes slowly break it down — ideally to above 55 C for a period of 15 days — and it must be turned five times during this period. 

That's because the microbes need air to do the job.

Tremblay monitors the pile's chemical balance throughout this process and then adds shredded paper and wood chips, if needed. 

"Regular paper we ask you put into recycling first." 

Too much paper can alter the pile's chemical balance, which is why residents should refrain from throwing items like a Tim Allen biography in their green cart. 

Ecology North compost specialist Dawn Tremblay stands in front of a pile of compost at the Yellowknife solid waste facility. She monitors the temperature inside the pile to make sure it stays above 55 C for 15 days. (Randi Beers/CBC)

After that, the a row of compost, also known as a windrow, goes through a curing phase where it cools off and stabilizes.

Once the pile has completely broken down into soil, the city sends samples to a southern lab for testing to make sure it's healthy.

City creates video game to teach where waste goes

To help with education, the City of Yellowknife has created a solid-waste video game.

Players decide whether batteries, aerosol cans, glass bottles, tin cans, straws and other refuse should go to the waste facility, blue bins, organics bin or the bottle shop.

At the end of each round, players use points they earn to populate their own city park with objects such as a rocket ship, water fountain, pirate ship, dinosaur, birds and even a big red dog.

"It's kind of a fun way to educate citizens on what goes where in terms of the waste stream," said Mike Auge, manager of sustainability and solid waste management. 

The city receives regular reports on the most common items people get right and wrong with waste disposal. 
The City of Yellowknife website has a garbage sorting video game that aims to help people figure out which piece of trash goes where. Gamers can populate a city park with tokens such as a dinosaur, water fountain, spaceship and big red dog, if they answer the questions right. (City of Yellowknife)

The city is also working to include apartment and condo dwellers in its compost program over the next two years.

Auge says residents who want to join in can contact their landlord or condo corporation and the city will hook them up with a green cart for their building.