RECYCLING: Remote Canadian Communities Form Recycling Strategy

In the remote, sparsely-populated region of Northwestern Alberta, Canada, frigid winter temperatures and vast, open space make implementing a recyclables collection and transportation system a difficult task.

With 125,000 residents living within an 85,000-square-mile area, Northwestern Alberta contains one city, 14 towns, 10 villages, one county and 12 municipal districts, as well as several Metis settlements and Native American reserves.

The communities in the region have prepared an integrated waste management plan to control their waste stream in a cost-effective manner. Through a public/private partnership, municipalities contract their recycling services. Northern Coordinated Action for Recycling Enterprises (C.A.R.E.), a regional non-profit organization whose members include municipalities, industry and special interest groups, coordinates the project.

In 1994, the region developed a user-pay recycling program in which municipalities pay a local company to collect and process recyclables from centralized depots. Each municipality is charged the same amount, regardless of whether it hosts the materials recovery facility (MRF) or whether it's four hours away. Items collected include newsprint and glossy paper, general office waste paper, cardboard, metal, glass and plastics (PET, HDPE and LDPE).

Due to high transportation costs and poor markets for some products, approximately $1 per household per month is levied in each participating municipality. Most municipalities pass this cost on to the residents by adding a recycling fee to their monthly utility bills.

The recycling company shares revenue with Northern C.A.R.E. through an agreement based on the price of newsprint and the number of households served. Northern C.A.R.E. uses this revenue to educate residents and to expand infrastructure for participating municipalities.

The recycling program requires a tractor, trailer and crane to empty the recycling bins, which are bottom-dumping, fiberglass igloo containers of two-, four- and six-cubic-yard capacity. The containers never leave the depot site and reportedly can withstand winter weather, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The trucks haul two, 30-foot-long trailers which collect and transport various products to the MRF. The facility is located in the city of Grande Prairie, in the southern part of the region. The farthest haul is to the community of Rainbow Lake, which is 400 miles to the north. Routes have been designed so that the truck is full (carrying approximately 10 tonnes of loose material) when it reaches Grand Prairie.

A base depot consists of five bins, with start-up capital costs of $5,425. In urban centers, base depots serve approximately 750 homes and are placed in high-traffic locations such as grocery stores or shopping mall parking lots. Newsprint bins also have been placed at post offices and apartment complexes, to encourage mail recycling. In rural areas, the depots serve 200 residences and are located at waste transfer stations, general stores and local community centers.

Northern C.A.R.E. is working with local entrepreneurs to develop markets for materials with less demand, such as glass or plastic. Crushed glass, for example, is used locally as backfill. For plastic, a local entrepreneur has patented a "compost ball" and a "landscaping brick."

Currently, the regional recycling program (see table on p. 14) serves 60,000 residents (20,000 households). Several additional communities are considering joining the Northern C.A.R.E program next year. To date, the recycling program has diverted 2,400 tonnes per year from the landfill, or 10 percent of the waste stream. Armed with an aggressive educational campaign, Northern C.A.R.E. hopes to double this volume within the next two years.

Including the revenue-sharing agreement, the average cost per tonne for the recycling program is $54. As volumes increase, Northern C.A.R.E. anticipates a reduction in this cost.

Member municipalities are encouraged by the success of this public/private venture, which has saved them time, money and personnel. Further, these communities are overcoming the concerns unique to sparsely-populated regions.