© Frank Reardon

In search of better solutions for garbage in Iqaluit, Canada

14 October 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A Green and Just Recovery. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Iqaluit’s “dumpcano”: In spring 2014, a fire broke out at the Iqaluit dump that took the city four months to put out. Dubbed “Dumpcano,” the 150 square meters or so of burning garbage created up to 2,000°C of heat. The fire also released chemicals into the air, causing schools to close for several days and resulting in health warnings. It cost the city more than $3 million to extinguish.

Arctic communities face unique challenges when it comes to waste disposal. Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, is a case in point. Without any roads connecting the city of 8,000 to other northern communities or the rest of Canada, most garbage is either dumped in the city’s aging landfill or shipped south by boat at significant expense.

Iqaluit will begin constructing a new landfill next year. It also plans to develop a recycling and eco-centre and alternative collection methods for residential, commercial and industrial waste. As Iqaluit’s mayor, Kenny Bell, tells The Circle, a sound solid waste management programme is critical to protecting residents’ health and safety as well as the environment upon which they depend.

What challenges has the city faced in dealing with its waste?

There are many. But one of the main things is our environment: it’s harsh for most of the year. We have a lot of strong blowing wind year-round. There are also the costs. We are very remote. Shipping garbage south or even trying to recycle it is almost impossible because the cost of transportation is just far too high. If you want to move stuff out of the communities, you have to store it until summer so you can ship it out by boat. Typically, only a small percentage of recyclable items actually end up getting recycled. It’s hard for us to find a place that even wants such a large amount at any particular time.

How have you dealt with your community’s waste up to now?

We basically just bury everything by covering it with granular material. We do ship metal south, such as old vehicles and oil tanks. But most garbage is buried in a pit and covered with gravel. Obviously, we can’t keep doing that. I mean, eventually, there would just be a whole bunch of landfills all over the beautiful North, and that’s not good for the environment.

How will the new waste management project help Iqaluit to address these challenges?

The new waste plan isn’t going to solve all of our problems. But it is the first step toward positive waste management. Right now, our current landfill is under fire—literally. We have to “fire watch” it because when you bury garbage, the decomposing material can cause fires or hotspots to flare up. We had a huge one here in 2014 that cost the city more than $3 million. We need to close that area because it’s already way over its capacity. Our current landfill is also along the water—right across from downtown, basically. The new one will be about eight kilometres inland, so at least plastics won’t get into the water as easily.

With the new plan, waste that can’t be separated for reuse will be delivered to the transfer station and sorted. Items being sent to the landfill will be wrapped in plastic and buried. There is also some recycling. The wood and cardboard brought to the site will be shredded and used as a fuel source for the biomass boiler. We have a tyre grinder coming in as well, so we can grind up tyres and hopefully use the rubber mulch in playgrounds. The plan is also to eventually offer composting. That will take most of the organic material out of the landfill.

What difference do you think these plans will make for the community and its long-term health?

We as Inuit and northerners respect the land, water, animals and environment. We use the environment on a regular basis. We love being on the land, so we can’t just have garbage everywhere and landfills popping up all over the place. We need to make sure it’s better for us for the future. From Nunavut’s point of view, the whole territory needs a coordinated, strategic approach so we can contribute to its overall wellness.