North·In Depth

Where to park Yukon's abandoned vehicles? A 'unique challenge' that won't go away

As the world watches COP26 climate meetings in Glasgow, Yukon recyclers are raising awareness of this local pollution issue to make sure that fewer cars damage the territory’s natural landscape. 

Study predicts Yukon will have another 10,000 disused vehicles to deal with by 2036

Ralph Charlton, metals manager at Yukon's Raven Recycling Society, walks through a lot covered in derelict cars. He says it's the largest one he's seen in the Yukon, but that there are many sites like it across the territory. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The Yukon is known for beautiful mountains and lands teeming with wildlife. 

But lesser known is that drivers can see a long-lasting invasive species from the side of the road: thousands of abandoned Chevys, Fords and Toyotas. 

"The landfills are … full with cars," Ralph Charlton, metals director at Yukon's Raven Recycling Society, tells CBC. "We're just trying to catch up, to get back down to zero." 

Charlton and other recyclers like him are racing against the clock.

If left alone to rust, hazardous material like engine oil, diesel and coolant oozes out of them into the soil or water sources nearby. 

A long tradition in the Yukon

The Yukon has a long tradition of abandoning vehicles that dates back to the 1940s, when the Alaska Highway was first built, according to Scott Dudiak, the program coordinator at Zero Waste Yukon. 

What's changed since then is that more and more people are leaving their family vehicles in the wild, he said.

A pile of abandoned cars on a lot just north of downtown Whitehorse. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"Abandoned vehicles in the Yukon are a unique challenge," Dudiak said.

"When you go to recycle your car [in the provinces] oftentimes you're paid for it, for the materials ... but in the Yukon, because of our distance from those markets, it actually costs money to [recycle]."

If left unchecked, abandoned cars can ooze out hazardous material, like gasoline and coolant, into the ground and waters nearby. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Raven Recycling Society started auto recycling a year and a half ago, according to Charlton — becoming the first non-profit in the territory to do so. 

The salvaged cars are brought back to a shared workshop between Raven Recycling and Urban Auto. One or two workers de-pollute the cars, removing all the hazardous material like coolant, oils and gasoline. 

A baler then turns the car metal into its final form—an unrecognizable block of scrap metal, ready to be separated and shredded at a recycling plant in Edmonton. 

A baler crushes cars down into unrecognizable metal squares, ready to be shipped and shredded at a facility in Edmonton. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Some material, like tire rubber, eventually makes its way back into constructing or fixing the roads those tires used to drive on. 

In the last two years, Raven Recycling collected over 100 cars and turned them into 70 to 80 tonnes of recycled scrap metal.

There's many more to go. A 2018 feasibility study from Zero Waste Yukon predicts there will be roughly 10,000 more disused cars to deal with in Yukon by 2036. 

This is what the cars look like in their final recycling stage. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"It's these kinds of small sources of pollution that are often overlooked," Dudiak said. 

"If you see a mine or an industrial facility, it's obvious— but things scattered across the landscape can not be quite so obvious." 

A problem 'nobody's addressed for years and years'

Over one million cars in Canada are retired every year, but what happens next depends on the provincial and territorial regulations. Some jurisdictions, not all, have a plan. 

For example, Nunavut's 2011 strategy on end of life vehicles (ELVs) regulates how solid waste facilities and others remove, store and dispose of the hazardous waste that these vehicles produce. 

But Yukon recyclers like Charlton and Dudiak said there's no similar plan in Yukon at the territorial level. 

"It's an ongoing problem that nobody's addressed for years and years," Charlton said. 

A study from Zero Waste Yukon predicts over 10,000 more vehicles will be discarded in Yukon's landscape in the next 10 years. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

In a statement to CBC, the Yukon government said it is working on a "coordinated interdepartmental approach" to [end of life vehicles] but did not specify what the strategy could look like. There are some examples in Ontario and B.C. it could consider, the statement continued. 

The territory also introduced tipping fees in 2020 for some rural Yukon communities, including new prices for end of life vehicles. 

Scott Dudiak, program manager at Zero Waste Yukon, says abandoned cars are often overlooked in discussions about waste disposal and pollution in the territory. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Now, Yukoners have to pay $150 dollars to dispose of a car where all the fluids are drained and the battery is removed. If that hasn't been done, the price goes up to $300. 

'We're here for our future generations' 

Raven Recycling gets most of its business from government contracts and First Nations governments that find which sites on their traditional territory need to be cleaned up. 

For Amanda Leas, chief of the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council, removing abandoned cars from their traditional land is an important priority — and a way to keep the environment healthy for generations to come. 

Amanda Leas, chief of the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council, says a top issue for her is to keep her First Nation's traditional territory clean and pristine for future generations. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"We're here for our future generations and just ensuring that we have a sustainable future for them to thrive on, and to continue living that life," she said. 

The land should be used for "anything but this," Charlton agreed. 

"We want [the land] to be pristine, get it back to what the Yukon is supposed to be." 

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