How I Food-Waste’d My Summer in NWT: Recycling and Composting in Canada’s North

Worm composter at home in Yellowknife NWT.

Dealing with the wasted food and discarded packaging that comes out of our kitchens may not be the prettiest part of our food system, but I think a household worm composter with those little squirmy creatures turning food scraps into black gold (soil rich in nutrients) is magical, beautiful, and completely Instagram worthy! If the idea of keeping a container of worms in your house makes you squirm, hopefully you are making use of Halton Region’s GreenCart curbside pick-up, which, along with the Blue Bin program, helps divert 60% of our waste from the Region’s landfill to instead be recycled or composted. Unfortunately, there are many places in Canada where smaller populations and remote locations render regional recycling and composting programs too costly to pursue.

Lady Evelyn Falls, just a few kms outside of Kakisa, NWT.

But what about the environmental costs of not diverting waste from local dumps? This question was the driving force for the small community of Kakisa in the Northwest Territories to pursue their own solutions to the lack of recycling and composting in their region. A traditional Dene settlement about four hours southwest of Yellowknife, Kakisa is known as K’àgee in their local South Slavey dialect, which means “between the willows,” and the Dene community members are represented by the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation. I spent this past summer living in Kakisa while I worked on a community-directed project on behalf of Wilfrid Laurier University with their partners Ecology North (environmental non-profit located in Yellowknife, NWT), the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation Band Council, and the community members of Kakisa. Living in Kakisa for only six short weeks, I learned firsthand about the environmental costs of dumping a community’s glass, plastic, metal, paper, and food waste into a local landfill. Without composting and recycling, not only do landfills reach capacity sooner, but there are greater risks of environmental pollution as rotting food waste releases harmful gases into the air and chemicals leach out of plastics into underground water sources and nearby streams—these are only some of the waste-related environmental challenges facing many communities in Canada’s North, including Kakisa.

The end-goal of the project in Kakisa is to establish a sustainable recycling and composting program for the community. To ensure the program could be successful and sustainable over time, the infrastructure and processes were chosen by the residents based on their lived experiences and first-hand knowledge of what would work best in their community. Learning and teaching strategies were also important for the program’s success; community leaders, including the youth, were trained on sorting and collection practices and several participated in the development of tools that they would then use to teach other residents. Together we decided that a three pile composting system located next to their landfill (about 10kms from the community) was the best way to compost food scraps and yard waste. We also worked together to come up with a process for collecting recyclables using sorting stations located throughout the community, and a process for transporting the sorted recyclables to Yellowknife (home of the only recycling transfer facility in NWT) where items are baled up and shipped to a materials recovery facility in Alberta for processing into usable materials. As there are many residents in Kakisa who frequently travel the four hours to Yellowknife, the community decided that different volunteers would take turns bringing the community’s sorted recycling to the transfer facility.

Eating locally in Kakisa - freshly caught Pickerel from Kakisa Lake and tomatoes harvested from the community garden.

This fall, household collection of organic materials and transportation to the compost piles will begin along with the centralized collection and transportation of recyclables to Yellowknife. Through this project, Kakisa’s leaders and community members have expressed their desire to protect and renew the land, water, and wildlife that are central to their Dene traditions, community connections, and cultural values. The community and their project partners hope that the process of recycling and composting will increase each resident’s awareness of how our choices as consumers contribute to our waste production, specifically in regard to the plastic, cardboard, glass, and metal packaging of most food and food products from the grocery store. The bigger goal for Kakisa is not only to extend the life of their landfill by recycling and composting, but to reduce the amount of waste material that is brought into the community by strengthening the use of traditional food practices and by adapting new, alternative food procurement methods that respect and protect the environment.

By Michelle Malandra