Let's make Yukon a "zero waste" territory

This letter to the editor by Yukon NDP MLA Kate White was published in the Whitehorse Star on Tuesday, March 22 2016.

As Environment Critic for the Yukon NDP Official Opposition, earlier this month I attended the “Working towards Zero Waste in the North” conference with my colleagues, Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson and Mayo—Tatchun MLA Jim Tredger.

The concept of “zero waste”, a call to be more mindful of the things we use and diverting as much as possible from the landfill, is especially important to us as northerners. We have limited means to store waste in landfills that are approaching the end of their useable lives, and we must ship our recyclables away – which is expensive.

As the zero waste conference’s conversations and presentations unfolded, it became increasingly clear that people feel that the Yukon Party’s approach to managing Yukon’s ever-growing amount of waste is not financially or environmentally sustainable. Since taking office in 2002, the Yukon Party has stood on the sideline when it comes to waste diversion, downloading responsibilities to our municipalities while only making occasional small financial commitments the extent of their action.

One presenter, Christina Seidel from the Recycling Council of Alberta, pointed out that northern jurisdictions don’t need to reinvent their designated material registries, which in Yukon hasn’t been updated since 2003 and only includes vehicle tires. This fact alone shows that the Yukon Party has no intention of taking zero waste seriously. We can deal with complex recycling and the costs of programs; we could even mirror and partner with our southern neighbors. In our case, it would make a lot of sense to partner with British Columbia, which has a registry that lists and recycles over 20 separate items compared to just one – car tires – listed in Yukon.

As someone who, like many Yukoners, is an avid recycler, it was challenging to hear a growing chorus agree that the Yukon Party is failing to do its part in the waste diversion process. Let’s remember that the Yukon Party broke its election promise to ensure that half of Yukon’s waste would be diverted from landfills by the beginning of 2015. While my personal efforts and yours are important, they will never solve the problem unless the territorial government plays a more serious role in shifting the focus of waste diversion from the individual to the collective and to the producer.

The example of this kind of relationship that stuck with me was drunk driving. You and I may agree that driving under the influence is not a good idea because it’s dangerous, but our individual actions don’t mean much if we let people decide on their own whether or not to drink and drive. In Yukon, like elsewhere in Canada, we have government measures that put in place the systemic change that we now take for granted: the community is better without drunk driving.

Similarly, Yukon is ready for systemic change when it comes to how we deal with our waste – and a Yukon NDP government led by Premier Liz Hanson will champion that discussion through meaningful action.

This is not an exercise of endless conversation, or empty promises like the Yukon Party’s waste diversion target. Zero Waste Yukon demonstrated at the conference that there are many successful practices from across the country that we could adapt. There are systems right next door to us in Alberta and B.C. that we both learn from and access. 

Yukon was once viewed as a leader on environmental matters; Yukon NDP governments tabled the territory’s first Environment Act, and the Yukon Conservation Strategy. However, thanks to 14 years of a total lack of leadership from the Yukon Party, we are lagging far behind our southern and eastern neighbors in the management of our recycling streams.

The Yukon Party prefers to download responsibility onto municipal and local governments instead of working with the source of the waste and working under the principles of Extended Producer Responsibility. Currently, the City of Whitehorse is doing all they can to help our two local processors offset the growing cost of recycling non-refundables, including studying a curbside recycling collection service. Why is this important? Without a steady stream of guaranteed revenue to offset the true costs of recycling, our processors are in trouble.

In B.C., designated material is dealt with and paid for by the same industry that produces the products that need to be recycled. Environmental fees are added at the time of purchase so that at the end of its life, people don’t have to pay for their proper disposal.

Yukon’s waste management status quo just isn’t sustainable.

Unfortunately, the Yukon Party appears to be frightened to have the conversation about producer responsibility with Yukoners. They do a disservice to both the manufacturing industry and to Yukon citizens by hiding behind that fear when we are being challenged to find solutions to such an important collective problem.

The concept of “zero waste” is not new, and it is not unique to Yukon. There is a global movement to create more circular economies that strive for greater self-sufficiency. Yukoners have shown they want be part of the solution – not part of the problem.

I look forward to continuing, as I have over the past five years of my time as an MLA, to work proactively with Yukon citizens, businesses and stakeholders to develop, together, the systems to foster “zero waste” as the way we do business in Yukon. 


Image: cogbog / flickr. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.