Jim Little: Iqaluit’s muck-pile maverick

“In years to come, this will be seen as a milestone.”



It’s early evening in late January, and Jim Little is passionately lecturing a small group of Iqaluit councillors, municipal staff and members of the city’s waste management committee about the glories of properly rotted garbage.

Little speaks with the ardor of a true convert, as he describes how Iqaluit could greatly alleviate its garbage and sewage disposal problems, which are fast reaching a crisis point, if only municipal officials would embrace his notions about composting.

As he pages through a slide show of graphs, facts and figures about garbage in Iqaluit, Little describes a recycling utopia in which problems become opportunities, apparent obstacles emerge as key advantages — rotting meat, vegetables and coffee grounds are mixed with shredded cardboard and dried sewage sludge to produce tons of the finest fertilizer, which will not only save money and help the environment, but will turn the city into a grassy oasis.

Pallets and other waste wood products now filling up the dump would be used to heat the buildings necessary to house offices and storage space. And, contrary to what his critics maintain, he says, the freezing Arctic temperatures will actually make the whole process easier and cheaper than it would be in the south.

But as Little exhorts his captive audience (it’s a regular meeting of the waste management committee, of which he is a member) it’s pretty clear that he’s not winning many enthusiastic converts.

After hearing from Little for more than 20 minutes about how as much as a third of the stuff that now winds up in the municipal dump could easily and economically be made into enough compost to turn the Arctic desert landscape of Iqaluit into a green haven for residents and a big draw for tourists, his audience can’t think of a single question they’d like him to answer.

Indeed, throughout the presentation, Coun. Nancy Gillis, chair of the waste management committee, seemed to have difficulty staying awake. And Geoff Baker, Iqaluit’s director of engineering, was not impressed. “Why should we spend $500,000 to fund a business for you?” he wondered.

If solving Iqaluit’s garbage and sewage problems requires a maverick, James S. Little is the perfect man for the job.

At 58, Little has no formal qualifications in recycling, or, for that matter, much of anything else. And, as he says himself, he’s not exactly blessed with a lot of friends or allies. “I know I have trouble getting along with people,” he says. Referring to his presentation to the waste management committee, he observes, “I was under attack the whole time.”

With no prompting at all, Little volunteers, “I don’t trust anyone at city hall. They’re a bunch of morons.” He characterizes one councillor as “clueless” and dismisses one senior administrator as someone who, if put in charge of a hospital “would let all the patients die rather than spend any money.”

It’s a strange attitude for someone who hopes to persuade Iqaluit council and its staff to not only embrace his notions, but to pay for them. What’s remarkable is that Little, a pugnacious loner with no diplomatic skills, has managed to enlisted 103 businesses and households in Iqaluit in a pilot composting project and that his efforts are beginning to attract international attention.

He’s been invited to speak at an international conference in Greenland later this month on environmental initiatives, and says that officials of an Alaska municipality have requested information on his composting methods.

But closer to home, Little faces enormous skepticism, especially from key decision makers. He says Premier Paul Okalik has dismissed the notion of composting in the Arctic, saying it simply won’t work in the extreme cold.

And Little is miffed that Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik and Environment Minister Olayuk Akesuk have refused to participate in his composting project. Still, Little refuses to give up. “In years to come,” he says, “this will be seen as a milestone.”

Jim Little grew up in the tiny New Brunswick community of Harvey, where he observed both his father and his grandfather as they made compost to fertilize their gardens. It was knowledge that lay dormant for years as he moved north in the early Eighties to Igloolik, eventually settling about 10 years later in Iqaluit.

His interest in composting was revived in 2001, when Iqaluit suffered through a municipal strike that left the city covered with mounds of garbage. Little, like most other residents, wasn’t happy about the trash-strewn urban landscape.

But he was outraged when municipal officials later attempted to reduce piles of waste at the dump by burning it, which enveloped the city in clouds of stinking black smoke.

While protests and a court challenge eventually forced the city to stop burning at the dump, Little began to think that there had to be a better solution to the problem. He began composting his own kitchen waste at home, and was impressed when the compost pile outside his house heated up so much that it emitted clouds of steam. “I looked out the window one day and thought there must be kids smoking outside, there was so much steam coming off the compost pile.”

Little began to think that composting could be the key to Iqaluit’s garbage problem. City officials estimate that the existing dump will be filled in five to seven years.

In 2004, Little launched his composting pilot project. With the help of a $65,000 grant from the federal EcoAction initative, he distributed green plastic bins to 103 households and businesses, including one large apartment complex and the CIBC. Every two weeks, Little and his son collect the contents of the bins. It’s stored during the winter, and when the temperature climbs sufficiently, he makes compost.

Despite what his critics, including the premier, may say, Little insists that the extremely cold Arctic winter is in fact an advantage. In the south, he says, municipalities that collect household garbage are forced to make compost all year, because of the problems of vermin and smells.

But in Iqaluit, he says, the compost freezes nicely and can be stored without any problems at all until the summer. That, he says, would help to keep costs down, because salaries and expenses for machinery and fuel would have to be paid only for a few months.

And, he says, the extreme cold would be advantageous if Iqaluit began composting the sludge from its municipal sewage treatment system. The sludge could also be stored during the cold months, he says, and freezing would actually help in separating solids from water. The nutrient-rich sludge could then be mixed with kitchen wastes and shredded cardboard to make compost.

Just why he has chosen to devote so much of his time to garbage and sewage is a question that Little says he is often asked. One answer, he says, is that it’s a way of atoning for some of the mistakes he’s made in his life. “I made a damn fool of myself in my younger years,” he says. “I’ll be 60 in a year and a half and I’d like to do something to make up for it. This is an important contribution that needs to be done.”

Another answer is that Little has a financial stake in composting. He has paid himself a salary of $48,000 as co-ordinator of the composting program.

He also runs a business cleaning sludge from fuel tanks, but says that if he can persuade Iqaluit that composting is the way to address its garbage and sewage problems, he’d like to build a composting business, and perhaps launch a landscaping endeavor as well.

“I really believe composting has to be in private hands,” he says. “I don’t think the city can be trusted to do it.”

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