Students explore waste at RDCK landfill

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A plastic light-up Santa coolly eyes the scene below him. Sitting up high, Old St. Nick keeps watch over the good citizens from the greater Castlegar area as they deposit their garbage at the Ootischenia Landfill.

Christmas is one of the most wasteful times of the year. A Vancouver-based advocacy group estimated that each Canadian tosses about 50 kg of garbage over the holidays — 25% more than the rest of the year. Annually, 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags will be tossed, according to Zero Waste Canada.

Light-up Santa sitting on his trash tier might think it’s ho-ho-hopeless. But take a deeper look at innovative and forward-thinking waste management underway in the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), and you’ll find more than just hope; you’ll find a full plan to protect the future, reduce our overall waste, and educate the next generation while they’re at it.

Students in Grade 6 at Nelson’s Trafalgar Middle School and students in Grades 4-5 at Salmo Elementary are among six classes in the region participating in Wildsight’s Beyond Recycling program, a 24-week exploration into the energy, waste and consumption in our daily lives, and how everyday actions affect the health of the planet. The goal of the program is to focus on solutions for now and into the future.

Wildsight Educator Mary Searchfield recently brought both classes on field trips to the Waste Management facility in Brilliant and to the Ootischenia Landfill to get a better understanding of where our waste goes when we throw it away. Trafalgar students also visited Grohman Narrow Transfer Station, where station operator Bill Kootnikoff gave an excellent tour which included weighing students on the scale to see how much it would cost to trash the class!

Ms. Searchfield says the RDCK’s Environmental Coordinator Todd Johnston was incredibly helpful in giving the students insight into the whole process throughout the tours.

“Staff did an amazing job. Todd really gave it thought and brought all the people working there alongside to teach the kids,” says Ms. Searchfield.

Mr. Johnston says this partnership is a good fit for the RDCK too as they work to educate the public about the reality of our waste system.

“It’s important for the kids to not only understand the Reduce concepts, but also to have an up front and personal experience with where their garbage goes,” says Mr. Johnston. “Meeting the people who actually operate the landfill and recycling depots makes it real and that hopefully will help them in drawing the connection between consumption and its impacts on land, water and climate.”

Landfill operator Stan Soukeroff gave the kids a tour of the whole landfill. Mr. Soukeroff was the one who found the light-up Santa and rescued it from the pile, setting it instead on its festive viewpoint for the season. Karin Jorgenson, RDCK recycling waste educator, set up tables with different types of recycling so students could visualize just how much can be recycled.

RDCK staff spoke about the work underway to reduce the overall long term waste at facilities across the region. Right now, aerated windrow composting facilities are being built in Creston and Salmo, and are both expected to be up and running in 2022.

“It may take a few years to get all the pieces in place, but with effective diversion initiatives, we have the potential to redirect as much as 30% of our Mixed Waste from the landfill to the compost, which will significantly cut down on harmful leachate and methane generation, and create a beneficial soil amendment,” shares Mr. Johnston.

Teacher Wanda Machado says while the day’s weather wasn’t friendly, the field trip itself was great.

“Everyone, including the adults, learned a lot and were impressed with the dedication of the people working there,” shares Ms. Machado.

The RDCK has been a fantastic partner to Beyond Recycling, shares Monica Nissen, Wildsight Education Director.

“They have always been not just willing to open up the landfill and transfer facilities for the tours, but also invest a great amount of staff time in sharing knowledge with the students, answering questions and showing them the ins and outs of their areas of expertise,” says Ms. Nissen.

Mr. Johnston emphasizes that the learning taking place for these students is well worth the effort put in by RDCK staff.

“My hope is that they take away an empowering understanding that their decisions matter and that they, as consumers, can make a positive difference to the climate and the environment in general.” – Todd Johnston

“With all the changes that we’ve seen to our recycling services, it’s also great for the kids to get their facts straight on how to do it right and hopefully teach their parents,” he adds.

Beyond Recycling is also underway at Kinnaird Elementary in Castlegar this year, with educator Jess Williams. That class also visited the Ootischenia Landfill, as well as the Brilliant Recycling centre / waste management facility.

Beyond Recycling is made possible thanks to generous funding from the Columbia Basin Trust, the CSRD, NSERC, the Province of British Columbia, the RDCK, the RDFFG, TD Friends of the Environment and individual donors.