‘Bear with us’: KUTE working hard to get back to normal but won’t sacrifice safety

The facility reopened its doors on April 22 after being closed just over a month

Anyone who has lived in Kitimat for a while can tell you that while the Kitimat Understanding the Environment (KUTE) facility might be back up and running, it feels anything but normal.

After announcing it would be closing its doors immediately on March 18 the facility, which is run by a board of volunteers, took a number of steps to make sure that both their workers and the general public were safe when using the facility.

That led to a reopening on April 22, with KUTE only accepting cardboard for the time being. Michelle Martins, KUTE vice president, told the Kitimat Northern Sentinel the decision to open in the manner they did is the result of a consensus among the board that it was safe to take cardboard if they had customers unload it themselves (under employee supervision) and it was left in a storage container for an extended period of time before workers sorted through it.

“KUTE is an integral part of Kitimat’s waste management plan and so … it was always when we re-open, not if, so we had to decide how can we do that in an effective way for the community?” Martins explained.

She said the new protocols have been put in place to make sure if there were any virus on any of the material it would be dead by the time workers were handling it, however she added it also highlighted what Martins said is an issue for KUTE even on the best of days: space.

“I think we underestimated how fast we could fill up a sea can,” she said, in response to a question about having to close early multiple days due to a surplus of demand.

READ MORE: Kitimat’s recycling facility reopens, only accepting cardboard currently

The problem now becomes what to do with all that cardboard (which has always been the bulk of what the facility received), with Martins noting even prior to the pandemic sales of recyclables had been low and sporadic due to fluctuating demand overseas.

KUTE, which is not owned by Recycle BC, sells their recyclables to a number of independent buyers which then sell the goods to markets overseas for various purposes.

“We are completely dependent on our buyers down south to bring trucks up to us to come get the material and we’re dependent on the trucks to come for us to ship material out so we can keep collecting material,” explained Martins. “Now we’re having to store the material for longer than we normally have to do and the trucks are coming inconsistently.”

She said pre-COVID-19 a truck would come every other week (which was already lower than average), but now they are less frequent.

Martins said while employees actually endeavoured to keep the facility open during the early stages of the pandemic, the decision to close came as a result of a consensus among both board and staff that it was the right thing to do to protect workers.

“What was happening is that personal tissues and things like that were getting mixed in people’s paper recycling,” she said. “It really made the workers feel uncomfortable.”

Martins adds that the facility is looking at ways to ramp its way back up to providing regular service but notes this won’t be done until they feel confident in their ability to provide their employees with a safe working environment.

“For the board it comes from a place of trying to achieve two goals of providing an effective service while also keeping our workers safe,” she said. “It’s been said to death but this is kind of unprecedented times so we’re trying to navigate operating in a situation that we haven’t had to operate before.”

She said the reaction from residents has been mixed and that she understands people’s frustration with not being able to use the facility to the degree they were able to prior to the pandemic.

“I feel for people,” she said. “I had a ton of cardboard, I don’t have a garage, so [I was] storing it all in a spare room.”

But Martins also asked people to remember these protocols have been put in place for their safety and the safety of KUTE workers.

“I understand people’s frustration, and for the board it comes from a place of trying to achieve two goals of providing an effective service while also keeping our workers safe.”

KUTE is the only recycling depot in the District that isn’t solely residential, taking industrial, commercial and institutional recyclables on top of its residential program. Unlike most recycling providers, the facility provides its services to its users free of charge.

The facility was formed in 1990 and takes its name from a group of students at Mount Elizabeth Secondary School (MESS) who suggested the facility in response to discussions on tackling environmental issues in class.

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