The Harsh Realities of Recycling in the Rockies

Lifting the lid on waste removal in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

This article originally ran as “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” in the Winter 2014 issue of Highline Magazine.

“What’s in the bag?” I whisper, watching the hairs on my buddy’s neck stand on end. My accusatory heckle hisses through the shadowy night in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Jasper. I’m taking out the trash from a post-housewarming soiree. My friend, who didn’t see me coming, is disposing of what looks to be his dog’s fecal matter.

Meeting someone at the garbage is always a social occasion.

I’m slinking to the bins in the dead of night to dump a salmon carcass. I’m not sure if the remnants should go in compost or garbage, and frankly, I’ll use the cloak of darkness to conceal my confusion. As for my buddy, he’s just being a responsible dog walker.

Is he going to compost that? I wonder.

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After seeing the unsorted mess that several inconsiderate “recyclers” have left in the cardboard, compost and garbage disposal containers lately, I have become wary of midnight dumpers. Over the last few weeks, with barely-repressed rage, I have discovered that, when it comes to properly sorting their refuse, some people in Jasper’s newest housing development have not been pulling their weight. Smugly protective of my new neighbourhood’s image (and known to rant when it comes to individual laziness that disrupts the collective harmony), tonight I am en guard. I am on self-appointed sanitary sentinel duty. I am a citizen on patrol.

Until it starts to feel weird.

It’s easy for righteous writers, promise-prone politicians and naive neighbourhood watchers to make pronouncements appealing to our inner environmentalist, but managing our waste in Jasper, Banff and Canmore is like Oscar the Grouch’s hoarding complex: it’s complicated. Our increased awareness of the natural world is colliding with our ever-constant quandary of convenience over cost. And while there are lots of ways to tackle waste management, there is consensus that the consequences of managing it poorly will sell our future short, both environmentally and economically. In the Rockies, because of our communities’ isolation, our close quarters with wildlife and the unique inputs and outputs of a high-volume tourism sector, the Three R’s quickly turn into the Three C’s: complexity, costliness and contradictions. Where to put the salmon bones is one thing; how to improve our waste diversion efforts is another kettle of fish altogether. 

Bear proof = Blame proof

After I realize it’s my friend in the shadows and not a hungry grizzly bear, a machete-wielding serial killer, or a gaggle of wine-cooler-drinking 16-year-olds (my worst fears, not necessarily in that order), I remember it wasn’t so long ago in Jasper that the fear of bumping into a four-legged dumpster diver was a legitimate  concern. Before the community had locking, ursine proof bins installed, black bears and even the occasional grizzly roamed Jasper backyards in search of tasty rewards.

“There was a time when bears were as common as dogs,” remembers 87-year-old Jasperite, Wanda Garford. “You couldn’t go down an alley without running into a bear.”

Inevitably, human-wildlife conflicts were regular occurrences. As such, when locking-lidded infrastructure was installed in Canada’s mountain parks in the 1980s, it was heralded as a great leap forward in managing how humans could live amongst wild animals.

But sealing the garbage off had another effect, although it would be years before it was identified as somewhat counter-intuitive to environmental best practices. In 2007, when the Municipality of Jasper conducted a waste audit, they learned that despite having implemented a residential recycling and compost program, the amount of materials which could have been diverted from the waste stream was more or less the same as when their recycling programs were nascent: somewhere around 30 per cent. And it hasn’t improved much since. Those who were historically more inclined to sorting their waste — long-term residents who lived in single family dwellings — continued to do so, while those who were typically poor recyclers and composters — young people living in staff accommodations  — remained negligent.

“[The diversion rate] has flat-lined. It’s depressing,” Jasper’s Environmental Stewardship Coordinator, Janet Cooper, said in 2010.

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At the root of the plateauing waste diversion rates is not just that 20-year-old lifties and weekenders are disinclined to sort their cardboard; rather it’s the fact that they aren’t compelled to do it — in fact, neither is anyone in Jasper, Banff or Canmore (Canmore eliminated curbside waste collection in 1999). Education campaigns and more convenient infrastructure notwithstanding, experts agree that waste diversion rates will suffer in our Rocky Mountain communities because of how the entire collection operation is set up. Between Jasper, Banff, and Canmore more than 700 communal concealing bins allow residents to dispose indiscriminately, with no fear of retribution for improperly sorted waste or inappropriate volumes. Unlike communities that utilize curb-side pickup of sorted materials, and also impose fines and refusal of service for offenders, the Jasper and Bow Valley systems allow residents and businesses to bag whatever they please, throw it in a bear bin and wash their hands of it — out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Consequently, when municipal haulers come by, staff find not only cardboard, glass and metals in amongst the bear proof bins, but large household items like mattresses, outmoded televisions and furniture.

“I got a text five minutes ago from a driver telling me there are four couches outside two different bins,” the Municipality of Jasper’s utilities manager, Ross Derksen, tells me over lunch at Recycling in the Rockies, the Recycling Council of Alberta’s biennial waste reduction conference.

The last straw

“I’ll have a Caesar please. No tabasco, no ice, no straw.”

After a full day of lectures and workshops, Andrea Smit could use a drink. Like Derksen, she has been learning from leaders in waste management at the Recycling in the Rockies conference, held this past October at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Unlike Derksen — and the majority of the conference’s 300 participants who represent towns and cities across the province — Smit is here as an interested individual. Inspired by The Clean Bin Project, a documentary whose protagonists were challenged to go waste-free for an entire year, the 29-year-old has similarly altered her lifestyle with the goal of zero landfill waste. It’s taken a shift in her thinking, more careful planning of her days and the discipline to say no to easy throwaways such as plastic take-out containers. But the sacrifices are worth it, she contends. Giving her strengthened resolve to reduce her impact, she feels the Towards Zero Waste revolution is growing.

“It definitely rubs off on people,” she says. 

Norman Neil can attest to that. A self-described “old granola cruncher” who always tried to live by a “pack it in, pack it out” ethos, Neil has since 2007 been the environmental coordinator at the annual Canmore Folk Festival. Seven years ago, Neil’s team did their best to pick out refundable beverage containers and cardboard from 28 pairs of bins set up around the Centennial Park site, but he was getting frustrated by the speed which the bins would fill up. (The waste collected filled 18 BFI bins.) By the end of the weekend, he was considering increasing their capacity for trash.

“I thought, wait a minute; this is going in the wrong direction,” Neil recounts. 

Using the Swedish sustainability model The Natural Step as his polestar, and working with the Bow Valley Waste Management Commission as well as the Town of Canmore, Neil’s crew blueprinted a series of systems that immediately corrected their waste diversion rate from 10 per cent to 80 per cent. The key, besides having separate bins for paper, cardboard, etc., was getting people engaged.

“We weren’t doing recycling for people,” Neil says. “We were showing them where recyclables went and then having them do it.”

Engaging in the physical act of recycling (compost here, plastics there!) and outlining the reasons for it is what helps wean folk fest-ers, and indeed most folks, from their old, bad habits in order to embrace new, good ones. Neil has learned that clear, consistent communication is paramount, but first and foremost, the team implementing the program has to be on board.

“You have to lead by example, and we get a lot of people on the crew who have sustainability close to their hearts,” Neil says.

This past August 2-4, “Gang Green” volunteers at the 2014 Canmore Folk Festival were manning the waste stations, rolling up their sleeves and helping recycling rookies figure out where to throw what. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like Janette Bagata, who stopped me before I could throw my compostable fork in the plastics bin, the event diverted 94 per cent of its waste from the landfill this year. That score is 24 per cent higher than Canmore’s special events are required to divert; a testament to the Gang Green team’s vigilance. However, Neil says you need people overseeing the entire system in order for it to work at an optimum level.

”You can never not have people at the bins. You need the manpower to make the system work.”

Lick your plate

Back at the Glacier Saloon, as our server clears our table, including my empty beer bottle, I reflect on the behind-the-scenes tour of the Chateau’s recycling facilities given earlier that day. The beer bottle will end up with the hotel’s glass recycling — four tonnes of which is processed every three months. The cardboard coaster will eventually join 16 tonnes of broken down boxes, egg cartons and tissue containers, while the napkin, if the server is diligent in her sorting, will add a couple of more grams to the five tonnes of paper which is trucked off the property every quarter. The Chateau’s recycling volume outweighs that of a community of 8,000 residents, according to a fellow tour-goer from Blackfalds, AB; however, while the hotel has laudable programs to repurpose bars of soap and shampoo (donated to Clean the World) and to recycle cooking oil (sent to biofuel processing facilities), there is one conspicuous element of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s waste stream which does not get separated: organics. 

“Organic waste is one of our most important untapped resources,” says Christina Seidel executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta. “It’s a complete crime how much is wasted.”Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 2.42.34 PM

Seidel, who is the lead organizer for Recycling in the Rockies, is a waste reduction consultant and the author of many community waste management analyses in Alberta. Subsequently, she has seen the good, the bad and the “criminal” when it comes to communities separating their organics. In the last 10 years, while the idea that food does not belong in the landfill has slowly filtered into the public mind, generally, she says, the prevailing belief is that landfills are the same as compost piles.

“From an engineering point of view, the last thing you want in the garbage is compost,” Seidel says. “It creates the most issues in terms of leachate and bio-degradation.”

While they haven’t gone so far as to ban all commercial organics from the landfill, as the City of Nanaimo did in 2005, Seidel says Jasper and Banff both get high marks for their efforts to divert food from the waste stream. With around 200 dining establishments between the two towns serving up meals for millions of tourists each year, Seidel believes that having commercial composting systems which restaurateurs can take advantage of is part of being an environmental steward in a national park.

“Hats off to Jasper and Banff in that regard,” she says. “They seem to get that they need a high standard.”

Even so, having a commercial composting system is one thing; getting businesses to take part is another. In Jasper, Cooper estimates that only 20 per cent of the restaurants participate (including, it should be noted, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which has had a composting program for more than 20 years). In Banff, participation numbers are higher (40 per cent), perhaps due to the town’s push to join their high-tech, compost-to-fertilizer N-Viro program; however, just down the highway in Lake Louise, none of the kitchens separate their organics because there is no program in place to accept them. The reason, Seidel suggests, is the same one that explains why some of Jasper National Park’s most popular tourist areas didn’t get beverage container receptacles installed until this year: Ottawa is slow to adapt.

“Bureaucracy gets in the way,” she says. “Banff and Jasper, as municipalities, have been able to do a lot, but Lake Louise is limited because it’s in a federal jurisdiction.”

Smit, who’s staying at Lake Louise’s hostel, has already found this out. When her breakfast server explains the facility is unable to compost her teabag, lettuce leaf and her friend’s uneaten potatoes, she sweeps the scraps into a reusable container.

“I’ll compost them when I get back to Burnaby,” she tells the slack-jawed waiter.

Road tripping

If schlepping her food waste to her car and driving it across British Columbia is a burden for Smit, she takes it in stride. For most communities across Alberta, however, transportation is the most costly part of waste management. In Jasper National Park, in order to service approximately 170 garbage and beverage container bins every week, Parks Canada employs four full-time employees from May to September. Trucks drive 61 kilometres to Miette Hot Springs (which includes Pocahontas campground) out east and 117 kilometres to the Bridal Veil Falls parking area down south. They hit Maligne Lake, the Columbia Icefields Centre and facilities serving about 1850 campsites. In total, the amount of garbage that goes to the Hinton Landfill — the municipality is part of a regional waste authority with Hinton as the receiver of all things not diverted — is somewhere around 3 million kilograms per year. By comparison, Lake Louise, for which Parks Canada hires a contractor to haul its refuse, creates 1.6 million kilograms of garbage annually. (Finally, by 2014, Lake Louise had communal recycling bins installed for the 1,200 staff and permanent residents who call the village home.)

It bears repeating that in Jasper, during the busiest summer in 10 years, popular day-use areas such as Lake Annette, Old Fort Point, Maligne Canyon, Valley of the Five Lakes and Pyramid Lake had no beverage container bins. When I asked Cooper if refundable plastic, aluminum and glass containers picked up at these high traffic areas were sorted from the waste stream, she let out a sigh. The answer was no, even though refunding these products would offset the cost of hauling, as well as reduce the amount the municipality pays in per-ton tipping fees to the Hinton Landfill.

“Hopefully this fall,” she says. (As of October 2014, eight beverage container bins have indeed been installed at Lake Annette, Lake Edith and Maligne Canyon.)

Opportunities up in smoke

The waiting game is nothing new for Cooper. For years she has been wondering whether the town will be able to take over the Jasper Transfer Station from the federal government so that the community can institute some of its best ideas. For one thing, the facility needs to be upgraded: its antiquated weigh scales and the open-air windrows of compost are starting points, but she would also like to collaborate with regional players. Recycling is most efficient when economies of scale can develop, and Jasper’s remote location begs for the securing of partnerships. In 2014 the municipality joined the regional waste commission — West Yellowhead Regional Landfill Authority includes Jasper, Hinton, Edson and Yellowhead County — which has a mandate of waste minimization to extend the life of the landfill and reduce GHG emissions. Planning has begun and good things will come from this but until the federal government and the town can resolve issues related to cost and liability (for potentially contaminated groundwater, for example), the transfer station’s needs will remain on hold. Bottles and cans will continue to find their way into the landfill, commercial users will continue to bring waste to the transfer station for free, and the open-air compost pile will occasionally combust, turning potential fertilizer into useless ash.

The first R – Reduce

The amount of resources governments allocate to make it easier for citizens to reduce their landfill waste will always be scrutinized, but in Banff, Jasper and Canmore, for the foreseeable future at least, the onus will remain on individuals to separate their waste at the source. While there are a growing number of standout players, such as Jasper’s Wild Orchid Salon and Spa, which diverts metal foil, harsh chemicals and even customer’s hair clippings (which are repurposed to help clean up oil spills), there will inevitably be rotten apples contaminating the cardboard, so to speak.

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There was hope when Canmore installed its community bear bins that residents would take a sense of ownership or self-policing, as it was called in a 2000 Solid Waste Services report. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough neighbourhood watchers to separate the good recyclers from the midnight dumpers, let alone the compost from the cardboard.

If Andrea Smit had it her way, the focus would shift from end-product recycling to reducing the amount of stuff we consume in the first place. It doesn’t mean we have to reject our way of life, she says, but we should pay more attention to what we’re buying, thereby putting indirect pressure on producers. When that doesn’t work, Smit doesn’t mind putting the hammer down.

“I called Charmin the other day to tell them I’m not going to buy their toilet paper as long as each roll is wrapped individually,” she says.

There is a push for jurisdictions to implement guidelines that align with Canada’s Extended Producer Responsibility code — a policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product extends to the post-consumer stage of its life cycle. But those are slow-turning wheels, hampered by the usual suspects: old habits, slick marketing and cost.

“Unfortunately, now it’s still cheaper to dispose than to recycle,” Seidel says.

Of course “cost” is relative. For most businesses and governments, it’s defined within monetary terms. But for a growing number of people, including Smit, it goes much deeper than dollars.

“You know that going zero waste is not just for you; it’s helping everybody,” she says. “And pretty soon the sacrifices don’t seem like sacrifices anymore.”

Bob Covey

Bob Covey is the founding publisher of the Jasper Local, a must-read for people living in and visiting Jasper, AB. Check it out at thejasperlocal.com.

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