Yellowknife's landfill manager on recycling, sorting and producing less waste

From curbside composting to planning for a new e-waste initiative, '2015 was a great year for waste management with the City of Yellowknife,' says Peter Houweling.

'We're consumers and we produce a lot of waste,' says landfill manager Peter Houweling

Peter Houweling, superintendent for Yellowknife's solid waste facility, poses with a Christmas tree salvaged from the dump. Houweling says he's seen an increase in consumer awareness of the waste they're producing, even when shopping at the grocery store. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

From curbside composting to planning for a new e-waste initiative, "2015 was a great year for waste management with the City of Yellowknife," says Peter Houweling, the superintendent of Yellowknife's solid waste facility.

Starting in February, Yellowknifers will also be able to recycle electronic waste — from laptops to desktop computers and printers — at the bottle depot. That service, launching territory-wide, will come along with new fees for electronics sold or supplied in the territory.

According to Houweling, e-waste makes up just two per cent of waste in the landfill, but accounts for up to 90 per cent of the hazardous waste.

Houweling says the city will expand its composting and electronic waste recycling services in the new year. (Sara Minogue/CBC)
The city is also set to expand curbside composting to the Frame Lake neighbourhood, after achieving a 25 per cent waste diversion rate in Range Lake and the Niven/School Draw/Old Town pickup areas. As well as cutting down on volume, it's also cutting down on greenhouse gasses produced by the landfill.

Houweling recently sat down for a year-in-review interview with the CBC.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

How are we doing on recycling?

Very stable. In 2015, as of Dec. 12, we have sent out just over 1 million kilograms of cardboard, 40,000 kilograms of electronic waste, we've diverted 8,100 kilograms of household hazardous waste and shipped out 25,000 kilograms of lead acid batteries for recycling.

We also have a very proficient operation in place where we reuse as many materials as we can on site. So in 2015, we used 56 per cent of our incoming materials, such as asphalt, clean fill, contaminated soil, tires, wood waste. For instance, tires. We shred them and then we use them as an intermediate cover in our landfill during the winter months while there's no clean fill [soils]. It limits the amount of windblown trash in our area, and helps to reduce the effect on wildlife.

So the stuff coming to the landfill is managed more?

If any of our residents have been at the landfill in the last couple of years, they'll notice that we're transforming more into a transfer station, and in the transfer station, it's easier for a site user to get rid of the appropriate waste in the appropriate areas. It comes down to simple organization and just using our effort and time and any funds to get that done in a cost-effective manner.

What about consumer recycling, like pop cans and household plastic, glass and paper? I've noticed that sometimes people put things in the big blue recycling bins that aren't supposed to be there. How big a problem is that?

Houweling says he would give Yellowknifers five stars when it comes to recycling. So far, he says, only a few seacans of recycling have had to be landfilled due to contamination, a 'miniscule amount' in the grand scheme of things. (Sara Minogue/CBC)
When that happens, if the rate of contamination is too high when we ship that recycling material out it could be rejected at the receiver and then it would be landfilled in the South.

In the three years that I've worked here, it's maybe been three or 4,000 kilograms in total that have been landfilled, so if we look at the numbers we've been reporting, we're into the millions, so it's very miniscule in the grand scheme.

At the same time, it's the most important aspect about recycling. For instance, our organics. If people are placing some sort of organic material in the bin with the packaging still intact, we physically have to sort that out ourselves to make sure that we don't have plastics in our finished products, which is very time and labour intensive.

Would you say there's been a leap in awareness around the amount of waste we produce or has it been more gradual?

Prior to the last two or three years, it would be gradual, whereas in the last two or three years it definitely started to become a priority. It's not going to go away and it's only going to increase and that is due to our culture: we're consumers and we produce a lot of waste.

Have you noticed greater awareness in the way people consume goods, for example, when they're picking out what kind of lettuce to buy at the grocery store?

For sure. One of the terms that comes to mind on that topic are "single use." We look at items like the K-Cup and plastic water bottles. They've literally been expanded in droves and we're buying this product and it's increasing the amount of waste that a person would produce in a lifetime.

Obviously they serve a purpose and they're convenient but there's many ways we can get around it, and that's things like using a reusable water bottle and refilling it from a water cooler rather than buying cases of bottled water, or having a communal coffee pot that doesn't use a plastic liner each time a cup is made.

Or buying a head of lettuce at the grocery store rather than the big bulky plastic case that may or may not be able to be recycled [Editor's note: It can't.] Even though the plastic is convenient because it's pre-washed and cut, it's still producing packaging after.

You mentioned the K-Cup already. Is there any one other thing that's especially annoying to you?

Well, I don't find it comical, but it almost is comical: we're starting to see an influx of reusable grocery bags in our waste stream. I think it's important for all of us to remember why we produce reusable items and that they aren't disposable. If we don't treat them with respect and use them appropriately, they're gonna get to a point where we're back to where we were with plastics.

If you have 40 reusable bags, eventually you're going to throw some away, and it's not that they're worn out or falling apart. It's just that you don't need them.


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