In November of 2017 and July of 2018 the City of Whitehorse conducted a waste composition study to determine the type and source of material entering the landfill.
Over the course of 5 days in summer and winter, ~6500 kg of waste were sorted into 60 categories and weighed to determine the estimated tonnes and types of material entering the landfill from residential, construction and demolition (C&D), and institutional, commercial and industrial (ICI) sectors annually.
The waste audit identified potential for 6500 tonnes of material to be diverted. Diversion potential was based on current programs and policies as well as consultant experience. Last year the diversion rate in Whitehorse was 26%, down from the high of 34% in 2015. Diverting an additional 6500 tonnes would bring the overall diversion rate to 50%. The City of Whitehorse previously adopted a goal of 50% diversion by 2015 and Zero Waste by 2040.
The waste audit concluded that organics, wood waste, paper and metal have the highest potential for diversion. Organics make up a small volume of the material landfilled, but they are heavy and contribute strongly to pollution by creating methane and toxic leachate which can pollute ground water.
Currently, clean wood is a controlled waste, meaning it must be separated from regular waste, but there are no other diversion strategies for clean wood. Wood waste is heavy and takes up lots of space, and also creates air gaps. Currently some clean wood waste is used in the compost facility, but there is high potential for increased diversion through avenues such as biomass heating.
Wood waste and organics were the largest categories of landfilled waste by weight, but the largest material category by volume is plastic. Soft plastics were the largest portion of the plastic waste stream. This material is light, but takes up lots of landfill space. This landfill space is something we should be valuing very highly, as the costs and footprint of a new landfill are significant.
While plastics make up only 8% of the weight of material, they account for 29% of the volume of landfilled material. The composite category also has a high volume to weight ratio. Composites include most packaging, particularly multi-laminate packaging and plastic pouches. These single-use items are becoming more and more popular, which was evident in samples, particularly from the residential sector. This material is not currently recyclable, so it is either landfilled or shipped out by recyclers to be used as fuel, often in the production of cement.
The large amounts of this material highlight the need for policies to reduce the production of this material at the source. It also highlights the need to incentivize producers to create packaging that is readily recyclable or compostable. Some grocery stores worldwide have begun to tackle this problem, by providing packaging free options and calling on producers to provide products with less packaging.
Product Stewardship is working
Only a small amount of beverage containers were observed in samples. The most frequent type were single-serve yogurt drinks and coffee cream. This speaks to the success of the Beverage Container Regulation deposit system.
Only 1% of landfilled waste was glass, which may be due to high recycling rates for glass in the city. Ironically, glass collected by recyclers is not actually recycled due to the economics and logistics of recycling the material. Crushed glass is used as daily landfill cover to prevent windblown litter and to compact material. Fortunately, glass is inert, which means it does not leach toxic chemicals like plastic does when landfilled.
These findings highlight the importance of continued efforts to divert organic material from landfill. Composting prevents methane release and toxic leachate formation. It also creates high quality compost which can be used to amend poor Yukon soils. This is good for local food production and reduces our reliance on imported goods.
Reducing our reliance on single-use plastics should also be a priority. These items are filling up our landfill at alarming rates. On top of that, the production of plastics is an increasingly significant contributor to global emissions.
There are many different diversion programs in place nationally and internationally. We can look to other jurisdictions for inspiration. We must continue to reduce our consumption and waste generation in order to lower our emissions.
Our population is growing and waste generation along with it. The more policy and infrastructure we can create to reduce resource use and recover the resources we use, the better off we’ll be.