By Benoit Dion
When we see movies or TV shows about the Arctic, those of us from the south are immediately struck by the beauty of the north, nature in its magnificence, the rich history of its people spanning thousands of years, the remote terrain, and the midnight sun.
What those shows often do not talk about are the real infrastructure challenges in the far north. Just by the nature of its location, weather and environment, accessibility is tricky. Where we have landfill management and recycling programs plants in the south, these services have not been made readily available in the far north.
Today, now more than ever, with a growing number of initiatives around the development of the Arctic, such as the Arctic Investment Protocol, the Arctic Infrastructure Alliance and the Arctic Infrastructure Inventory, we feel it’s time for key stakeholders to address these issues.
Our teams at SANEXEN Environmental Services have been collaborating for many years with local communities to address these challenges and together, we have steadily been putting in place the building blocks to develop sustainable solutions for a positive outcome for the future.
The Time to Act is Now
In a recent conversation with Christine Nakoolak, president of Avaatani Environmental Services, we wanted to explore the next steps in implementing innovative solutions to these challenges and asked her to outline some of the most important questions that need to be addressed.
Nunavik is part of Northern Quebec and stretches for approximately 500 000km2. Most of its inhabitants are settled in fourteen villages along the coast of Nunavik. The infrastructure system is almost non-existent: no roads from the south leading to the villages up north, so the access must be done by sealift during the summer or by plane all year long. The landfills are not well built, saturated, and do not answer to the local communities’ needs. For years now, waste management has been made complicated due to the lack of support from governments, funding, and the environment itself.
First, there are no containment cells as we see in Southern Quebec, due to permafrost. The open-air waste disposal sites are overused and packed. As an example, the village of Puvirnituq received 12 000 m.t. of material and none was sent back south for proper recycling. There are no membranes or containment systems, no segregation of waste and no control over what enters, so all sorts of waste can be found. It has become current practice for people in the communities to go to dump sites to find spare parts for their four-wheels, snowmobiles or electronics which poses, among other things, health and safety issues. Locally, the dumps are called “Canadian Tire” – meaning everyone can find a spare part of some sort. Regulation-wise, it is still legal to burn matters, which produces nauseating odours and can create health related issues (i.e., the smoke from burning tires). Lastly, vehicles, batteries and other electronics are contaminating the soil with oil, glycol, and other hazardous components which in turn contaminates the groundwater. This problem has been aggravated by climate change, causing the permafrost to thaw, and erasing the small barrier that it had created in the past.
Because of the lack of easy accessibility to these regions, disposing of waste is a constant challenge. First, how do you return old 4-wheels, televisions, and other electronic devices? They are heavy, cumbersome, and potentially dangerous for the environment if not properly handled. Second, the cost of transporting the waste is prohibitive. Even some type of materials such as metal and copper who have a small reselling value do not cover the expenses of transporting them by sealift or plane.
Truly Sustainable Solutions
First launched in 2016 at the World Economic Forum, the Arctic Investment Protocol articulated six key principles for Arctic investment:
- Build resilient societies through economic development;
- Respect and include local communities and indigenous people;
- Pursue measures to protect the environment of the Arctic;
- Practice responsible and transparent business methods;
- Consult and integrate science and traditional ecological knowledge;
- Strengthen pan-Arctic collaboration and sharing of best practices.
Given our knowledge, here is how we feel they could be applied in this context. First, for these principles to be applied, we need funding. This money should come from a collaborative effort between local and provincial governments, as well as any private company who wishes to develop the region. A society cannot be resilient through economic development if the basic waste-disposal needs are not met.
Furthermore, responsible, and transparent business methods must consider the entire life cycle of a product. There is a real opportunity for business and governmental entities who wish to develop the Arctic to rethink their ways of building. It could, for example, be mandatory for contractors to include waste disposal in the overall cost of the project. It also implies that the companies asking for bids are also accountable, by checking if the contractor has indeed done so at the end of the project.
In Nunavik, the Residual material waste management plan[i], elaborated by the Kativik Regional Government in collaboration with communities, offers in the field solutions for a more sustainable approach. This program is also very much in line with the three improvement principles we are investing in:
- Infrastructure – As mentioned before, the existing sites are inadequate. A few measures could be undertaken to make them more efficient and safer. Get funding to build new facilities which would include a selection process to separate compostable matters, reusable materials, and large appliances from waste. These facilities should also be supervised and have limited disposal hours to ensure better compliance with best practices. The existing sites could then be decontaminated, thus eliminating health risks within the community. With its expertise in oil and other contaminants disposal, Avaatani could be part of this solution.
- Regulations – Even though the community does not think the regulations around open air burning will change any time soon, the health concern is serious enough to make them look at alternative solutions, such as having their own incinerator with heat recovery or simply stopping the practice altogether. Other options are also considered, such as better management of the waste before it gets to the disposal sites (composting, reusing, repairing) and then sending the waste back south. Since the transportation of the waste is expensive, public-private partnerships could be a good alternative to consider.
- Communication and Community Involvement – Although regulations and funding are essential aspects of the solutions, community involvement is key for these initiatives to succeed and every action, small or big, can have a positive impact. Education must be prioritized to heighten awareness of the local population to the environmental, safety and health issues surrounding waste disposal. A few initiatives have already started: local trash picking during the summer (especially along the water or at berry picking spots), as well as a fundraising initiative involving a private partner (in Kuujjuaq, members of a sports’ club pick up returnable cans, and an aviation company has agreed to exchange them for money in Montreal). Citizens have also started to diminish their usage of plastic bags and are looking into solutions for portable ashtrays to limit the pollution done by cigarette botches.
The development of the Arctic is inevitable and there are exciting opportunities ahead to do things right from the start, so that we create a solid base from which to expand on and improve. Key investments in infrastructure, specifically in waste management, are the first step towards building sustainable communities. This is not something we can do alone or in our own silos. Collaboration between governments, scientists, businesses, and locals will be essential to pursue measures that protect the environment as well as promote responsible and transparent business methods. It is possible to honour and implement traditional knowledge and reach our combined goals by introducing cutting edge innovation, always respecting the natural wonders of the north, for generations to come.
Benoit Dion is senior manager of business development for SANEXEN Environmental Services.
Featured image from Avaatani Environmental Services.