Solid waste management for northern and remote communities

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Environment and Climate Change Canada, with input from territorial government representatives, key stakeholders, and subject matter experts, developed a voluntary guidance document on how to manage municipal solid waste (MSW) in Canada’s northern, remote, and small communities. This is a summary of the guidance document which covers both the planning and technical aspects of waste management.

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Municipal solid waste (MSW) or simply “solid waste” are terms used by the waste management sector to refer to reusables, recyclables, compostables, and residual waste (i.e., garbage) from homes, businesses, schools, and other institutions. The term MSW can be applied regardless of the type of settlement e.g., hamlet, village, town, municipality, First Nation. MSW and solid waste are not be confused with sewage sludge or biosolids.

Why was the guidance document developed?

Communities in northern and remote regions face unique challenges in managing their MSW due to weather, geology, population size and distribution, socio-economic factors, and access to services and facilities. As a result, some waste management practices can present risks to human health and the environment. While the principles and practices of environmentally-sound waste management are well-documented, and in some areas mandatory, these recommended practices need to be adapted to the distinct conditions of northern and remote communities.

Who should read the guidance document?

The guidance document presents valuable waste management information for regulators, infrastructure departments, senior administrative officers, band managers, facility operators, and other decision-makers in northern and remote regions.

As with all guidance of a voluntary nature, users of the guidance document should always take into account their specific local conditions and existing requirements. Although great care has been taken to provide accurate and practical guidance, the information contained in the guidance document is not intended to replace any local, provincial/territorial, or federal regulatory requirements, and is not a substitute for seeking advice from qualified professionals.

Why is planning important for municipal solid waste management?

Responsible waste management requires careful planning, investment, and ongoing management and monitoring. Many northern and remote communities may experience growth in their population or sudden changes in economic activity in their region which will impact the types and quantities of waste that require management. As a result, waste management policies, programs, and infrastructure need to be developed in a way that respects the community’s changing needs and available financial and human resources.

Waste management planning, with meaningful community engagement, is important to a community’s success in improving its practices and meeting the challenge of changes in and around the community. Through this process, communities can take stock of their current waste management situation, set priorities and goals, identify and evaluate options, develop and implement a waste management plan, and then track their progress and make adjustments over time.

Continuous Improvement Approach to Waste Management Planning
Long description
  • Step 1: Complete a Community Waste Assessment
  • Step 2: Set Waste Management Priorities for the Community
  • Step 3: Identify and Evaluate Options and Develop a Plan
  • Step 4: Implement, Evaluate, and Improve the Plan

To create efficiencies and expand waste management options, partnerships with neighbouring communities, private businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations should be made whenever possible. A good waste management plan is valuable for northern and remote communities as it can help guide decisions, including financial planning, over the long term. It can also help keep the focus on identified priorities and reduce risks and future liabilities.

Site evaluation and selection is one of the more challenging and critical activities in the planning process. Whether a community is looking to upgrade their existing MSW facility or to establish a new one at a different location, there are a number of considerations that will help reduce risks to human health and the environment that can be grouped into the following themes: land, water, wildlife and sensitive ecosystems, transport, and proximity to the community.

What should the waste management priorities be?

As part of their waste management system, most communities have access to some type of MSW facility, ranging from basic to more advanced infrastructure (e.g., dumps to engineered landfills), where they can store, process, or dispose of their waste. Waste management practices sometimes include separating waste types such as hazardous and special waste, electronic waste, etc. The proper design, operation, monitoring, and closure of part or all of a MSW facility are integral to the health and safety of the community and to the protection of the surrounding environment. For this reason, the ongoing support of qualified professionals and trained personnel during planning and operations is required.

In northern and remote communities, competing infrastructure priorities, limited budgets, and the high cost per capita of building and maintaining infrastructure are an ongoing challenge. Taking this into account, the guidance document proposes two principles that should guide communities in their effort to manage waste in an environmentally responsible manner:

  1. Taking a risk-based approach to waste management. This means prioritizing infrastructure, operational activities, and waste types to reduce the risks to human health and the environment (in the guidance document, the recommended priority actions are colour-coded: red for high priority, yellow for medium priority, and green for lower priority); and
  2. Committing to continuous improvement to the waste management system over time.

The guidance document proposes a new twist on the 3Rs mantra - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - by applying a risk-based approach to waste management in northern and remote communities:

Reduce risks
keep hazardous substances out of the landfill and no open burning of waste
sell or donate reusable household items (e.g., furniture, clothing) and other materials and products (e.g., lumber)
collect products and packaging for recycling and compost food and yard waste.

What topics does the guidance document cover?

The guidance document is organized into the following sections:

Section 1 - Introduction: Introduces the reader to how the document came to be, the intended audience, its limitations, the current state of waste management, and a vision for the future.

Section 2 - Waste Management Planning and Continuous Improvement: Discusses the importance of waste management planning, describes the key steps a community can take to continuously improve its waste management system over time, and includes a framework for prioritizing the recommended best practices.

Section 3 - Municipal Solid Waste Facility Site Selection: Provides guidance on site evaluation and selection for a new MSW facility or a new sub-component, such as a landfill cell, or to assess an existing MSW facility or landfill cell to identify potential areas for improvement.

Section 4 - General Operation of the Municipal Solid Waste Facility: Provides guidance on general operation of the MSW facility, recommends priority actions that apply to the MSW facility as a whole, and provides examples of how to lay out and design the facility.

Section 5 - Landfill Design and Operations:Provides technical guidance on the design, construction, and operation of a landfill cell for residual waste disposal within a MSW facility and recommends priority actions.

Section 6 - Management of Major Waste Types: Prioritizes the remaining major waste types and presents best practices in terms of design and operations for each:

Section 7 - Performance Monitoring and Reporting: Provides an overview of considerations for MSW facility performance monitoring and reporting. Key parameters include groundwater, surface water, and in some instances, leachate and landfill gas.

Section 8 - Municipal Solid Waste Facility Closure and Post-Closure: Provides an overview of considerations for closure and post-closure activities that apply to an entire MSW facility or to gradual closure of a sub-component such as a landfill.

Section 9 - Summary and Next Steps:Summarizes the key recommended best practices and suggests next steps for improving waste management in northern and remote communities.

Appendix A - Additional Resources: Provides additional resources on the various topics covered in the guidance document including:

What waste management goals can northern and remote communities work towards?

The waste management approach promoted in the guidance document supports the national vision adopted by Canadian environment ministers in 2014 and its objective to, “address the challenges of remote and Northern communities to improving their waste practices”. For some northern and remote communities, the path to achieving this objective is an incremental one but the goals are the same:

Quick tips for improving waste management in northern and remote communities:

  • Understand the waste stream, prioritize, and plan ahead with input from the community;
  • Seek out partnership and funding opportunities;
  • Train staff and, as needed, hire qualified professionals;
  • Engage the community on the importance of reducing and reusing waste before recycling and disposal;
  • Install a fence and a gate to keep people and wildlife safe and post clear signs;
  • Keep hazardous waste and substances out of the landfill and do not open burn waste;
  • Keep surface water, snow, and groundwater away from waste;
  • Save resources and premium landfill space by reusing, recycling, and composting;
  • Monitor for impacts to the surrounding environment; and
  • Maintain facility records and report to regulators as required.

To obtain a copy of the full guidance document, please visit the Government of Canada Publication website.

For more information about the document, please contact the Waste Reduction and Management Division.

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