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Talking Trash in the Remote Canadian Arctic

Far-flung northern communities face special challenges when it comes to disposing of household waste – and innovative, cost-effective approaches are needed quickly.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Remote communities in the Arctic are trying to find better ways to handle their residential waste.Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0/Mikrobiuz

To understand the challenges that remote Arctic communities face when it comes to household waste disposal, look no further than the city of Iqaluit during the summer of 2014, when a dump fire blazed there for four months. Dubbed the “dumpcano” by some residents of the Nunavut capital, the fire released chemicals, including dioxins and furans, into the air and cost the city nearly C$3 million (more than $2 million) to finally douse.

The drama became a national spectacle and prompted an overhaul of how city workers managed Iqaluit’s sprawling, overloaded landfill. These days, the city is making efforts to segregate and ship out bulky and potentially flammable waste, such as tires and cardboard. The garbage is now better compressed and more frequently covered with soil, to prevent the pockets of air that enable bacterial growth, which can lead to spontaneous combustion.

Still, the landfill is outdated. “We outgrew that dump a decade ago,” says Madeleine Redfern, Iqaluit’s mayor. She hopes to see the existing site capped and closed and a new landfill opened by 2020, but she also concedes it ultimately isn’t up to her – to pay for this work, outside money is needed.

“We’re the capital city of the territory, and there are big-city expectations, yet we’re a relatively tiny town of only 8,000,” she says. “We have a tiny population, we have a tiny ratepayer base, that’s why we absolutely need help from the federal government, and possibly the territorial government.”

City officials are working on plans for a new landfill that they expect to release this coming spring. Redfern hopes they will come in time to take advantage of the federal government’s plans to spend billions of dollars on municipal infrastructure upgrades. Several federal ministers have visited Iqaluit recently, including the federal transport minister, who passed the dump on the way to the site of a proposed deep-sea port. The landfill, in its current state, wouldn’t make the best first impression on tourists disembarking from visiting Arctic cruise ships.

“There’s a recognition that we need to act quickly. The opportunity is now,” says Redfern. She hopes to see recycling and composting programs included with the new landfill – two programs the municipality presently doesn’t offer, beyond shipping off cardboard.

Recycling is bound to be pricey: Without any roads connecting Iqaluit to other Nunavut communities or the rest of Canada, recyclables would need to be backhauled on ships during warmer months when the ocean isn’t frozen. One Iqaluit business currently ships more than 1 million crushed beer cans every year to processors in Montreal, but the market for recycled aluminum is much more lucrative than other goods, including plastic.

Composting is possible in a place as cold as Iqaluit. A local nonprofit has operated a compost site for a decade near the landfill, sending the soil to local greenhouses. However, during the dump fire its operations were buried as firefighters broke apart piles of smoldering trash.

The previous mayor and council planned to include an incinerator with the new landfill, but Redfern says it remains to be seen whether such a device makes sense for a city of Iqaluit’s small size. She notes that incinerators are common in communities across the Davis Strait, in Greenland. But the capital city there, Nuuk, has a hydroelectric dam to power the machine, whereas Iqaluit, like every other Nunavut community, currently relies on burning expensive diesel fuel to generate electricity. “When you have abundant and affordable energy, your options are greatly increased,” says Redfern.

There is another initiative that would reduce the amount of rubbish hauled to Iqaluit’s landfill, but it remains untested in the city. Gasification promises to turn a bag of garbage into a small pile of ash. The machine cooks the trash in an oxygen-starved environment to produce a synthetic gas that is burned to stoke temperatures of up to 1,100C (2,012F). The machine’s manufacturer says there are few emissions. As a bonus, excess heat thrown off during the gasification process can also help heat the building that houses the machine.

Yet for more than two years, the city’s gasifier has sat unused in the wastewater processing facility. Iqaluit bought the gasifier with C$500,000 ($370,000) of federal funds, but Redfern says one part of the device never worked as promised, and the city remains at loggerheads with the device manufacturer over who should pay for the work needed to make it run.

Still, Iqaluit’s gasifier was never going to solve the city’s waste-management woes. It’s capable of processing half a tonne of garbage per day, but the city produces 50 times that amount. Yet it’s worth noting that a similar device has been used in Old Crow (Vuntut Gwitchin), the Yukon’s only fly-in community.

Howard Linklater, the director of government services for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says the community would prefer to recycle what it can than see its garbage fed to the gasifier. But the gasifier is a big improvement over the previous practice of open burning, which the Yukon government ended in 2012, following complaints.

“We had a big barrel, and we just threw the garbage in and burned it,” said Linklater. He added that the old practice of burying waste was “ridiculous,” given how Old Crow sits atop permafrost that’s susceptible to melting if disturbed.

Recycling can be costly for communities in northern Canada. Without road access, recyclables must be transported on ships during warmer months. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 /Tom Morris)

Recycling can be costly for communities in northern Canada. Without road access, recyclables must be transported on ships during warmer months. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 /Tom Morris)

Nunavut’s smaller communities, meanwhile, continue to cope with their garbage through open burning, which can be harmful to residents’ health. In addition, these dumps lack liners to prevent the seepage of waste into the soil and water, or fences to prevent waste from being strewn around communities. The government of Nunavut has acknowledged this is a problem, but has taken little action to date.

Resolute Bay, at least, may be receiving some help soon. The Canadian military plans to ship a portable incinerator to the federal government’s Arctic research hub outside town next summer. The device is small enough to store inside a shipping container, and the plan is to make it available for the hamlet’s use.

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