Refilling a container with soap from a newly opened zero-waste business in Yellowknife, N.W.T., is a way people can take action to curb climate change, according to the program coordinator of Zero Waste Yukon.
Nested inside the Mermaid and Moon Boutique on 47th Avenue, YK Refillery gives people the opportunity to purchase dish soap, hand soap and laundry detergent in their own containers — rather than having to buy a whole new bottle.
"Down the line, we're looking at bringing in shampoos and conditioners and other beauty products," explained Meredith McNulty, who owns the boutique. "[It's] a more low waste way of accessing these products."
McNulty said people can bring in their own clean containers, or buy ones that are being sold in store. Those containers are weighed, filled with product, and then weighed again so the customer only pays for the amount of product they want.
The business opened in early December, and McNulty said the feedback so far has been positive.
"Every day, people are coming and refilling or there's people that see it and they ask a lot of questions. So it's been a good opportunity to even just like start conversations about why having a refillery is important."
Zero waste a form of climate action
Scott Dudiak, the program coordinator of Zero Waste Yukon, says waste reduction and the world's climate change crisis can not be separated from each other.
"The production of anything, and it's not just plastics, is tied to climate change," he said. "If you don't have to make something twice, then you're reducing that carbon."
Dudiak talked about disposable coffee lids to illustrate his point.
Coffee cup lids are made out of plastic that is typically derived from fossil-fuel based chemicals, like natural gas or petroleum "that was pulled from the Earth" in a resource-intensive extraction process.
The material was "shipped all around the world" and then "finishes on top of your coffee cup" where it is used for about 10 minutes before being sent to landfill, he said.
A study from Environment and Climate Change Canada found that in Canada, only nine per cent of plastics are recycled — the rest is either incinerated, landfilled, or ends up in the environment.
"The whole concept of disposability is out of sync with everything else in nature," said Dudiak. "There's no consequence, there's no relationship with that material, there's no relationship with the land."
Dawn Tremblay, the executive director of Ecology North in the N.W.T., agreed that reducing waste is "definitely" a type of climate action.
"It's not always the first thing you think about, your composting, your waste management and those types of things. But it's definitely an important impact that each person can have," she said.
Environmentally-conscious products at YK Refillery are shipped North in bulk packages of their own, and suppliers are no longer taking those containers back because of the pandemic. When asked about the environmental impact of shipping goods, Dudiak pointed out that all such supplies — bulk or individually packaged — need to be shipped to reach the North.
"Zero-waste is more than just the packaging that you're considering in your purchasing," he explained. "It's more of a philosophy about mindfully considering all of the inputs that go into your purchasing."
Dudiak said he would never advocate for buying a bulk option that's produced in an unsustainable way on the other side of the world, when there is a locally made option that is packaged.
The impact of buying in bulk
Though it offers just a few bulk products now, Dudiak said the impact of YK Refillery and other zero-waste businesses are two-fold.
"There's this education component that just happens sort of naturally, through your experience," he said. "You go into it once, and you realize that this is no more inconvenient than the way that we're familiar with it, buying something off the shelf. In some regards, it's more convenient. You can get as much as you want."
The existence and success of refilleries, he said, also signals to government and to retailers there's demand for package-free options.
"Ideally, with more demand [and] more of these types of businesses coming up, you have more pressure to change legislation," he said. "It's more broadly about the cultural and signalling message than it is about how many tonnes of waste did you divert."
Differing waste management policies
Yukon's recycling is managed by Raven Recycling, a non-profit that serves the general public and businesses in Whitehorse, and which processes recycling from all Yukon communities.
Zero Waste Yukon is the non-profit's activism and educational arm.
"Having Raven in Whitehorse, that is run by the community, they've started many of the programs the government would later adopt. The first bottle deposit, the first compost project, trying to recycle novel materials," said Dudiak.
"There's been a sustained community action that has been really influential."
There is already a zero-waste refillery in the Yukon. A ban on plastic bags takes effect across the territory on Jan. 1, and some of its communities have implemented their own bans on single-use plastics. Yukon is also adopting an extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy — which would shift the responsibility for a product's post-consumer life to a producer, and away from a municipality and its residents — in the next five years, noted Dudiak.
There is no EPR policy in the N.W.T., but it is a part of the territory's waste management strategy. There is also no bag ban.
Tremblay said the proximity of residents to their landfill sites does make northerners "pretty aware" of the impact their garbage has. "It's the end of the road," she said of the North, "which again puts a little bit more responsibility on people to make those consumer choices."
The point Dudiak wants to emphasize most is that the zero-waste movement is not about eliminating all the waste from your life.
He said it's about thinking about the overall environmental impact a product has, before it even makes it into your home, and "being angry that you have no other choice."