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Anger over honey bag signs

Lauren McKeon
Northern News Services
Published Friday, January 09, 2009

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The city recently raised the ire of business owners, shack dwellers and house boaters alike when it placed prominent signs proclaiming "human feces - do not touch" in front of homes and businesses in the Old Town/Woodyard area.

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Dwayne Wohlgemuth woke up to find this honey bag sign posted atop the drop off site in front of his shack. Unlike many other dwellers, however, Wohlgemuth was sad to see the top half of the sign go. - Lauren McKeon/NNSL photo

The signs, which went up without any consultation in early December, adorned honey bag drop-off sites around the city. In addition to warning everyone not to touch the poop they asked anyone dropping off their bags to "consider a composting toilet." Honey bags, the sign reads, don't compost "ever."

A little warning and some discussion may have produced some better results, said many contacted by Yellowknifer.

"This information-loaded object showed up in my driveway on my property without a 'how do you do?'" said Matthew Grogono, who found the sign one morning on the honey bag site in front of his business, Yellowknife Glass Recyclers.

"If you had a business, would you want a sign like that in your yard?" he asked.

Grogono said he wrote and called city administration, the mayor and at least two councillors, but received no word back until Tuesday, when the superintendent of operations and maintenance at Public Works, Dennis Althouse, pledged to compromise on a new message for the sign.

Before then, over Christmas, Grogono put up his own sign displaying his business logo over the one erected by the city, turning what many called an insulting sign into a piece of art.

The city sign remaining under Grogono's is, by all accounts, the only one left intact in the city. All the others have been torn off.

And while the city takes credit for taking the signs down, many houseboaters and shack dwellers thought one of their own had done the deed.

"There is raw sewage in those bags. There are approximately 12 locations in Old Town where we pick up those honey bags and we (Public Works) thought we had to notify the public that there's potential danger. There's typhoid, cholera, all types of things are spread by raw sewage," said Althouse.

"We were requested by a couple councillors to remove them and they were removed," he added.

Althouse said he worked with one person in the area to get the wording of the sign right but the intent was still missed.

"It was felt by some of the people that they reflected onto the houseboaters more than the honey bag sites - that wasn't the intent. The intent was to notify the public there was a hazard there," he said.

"Apparently some of the houseboaters thought it was picking on them."

Grogono, who owns three houseboats, said he was not happy about the suggestions made about houseboaters - there is a picture of a houseboat on the sign - and believes the city needs to work with them to create a better solution for waste management.

"The inference is the creators of the sign know better than us and think composting toilets are the answer," he said, adding he had a composting toilet once but, with freezing Northern temperatures, it was not practical.

Everything inside it froze in a solid chunk.

Talking about alternative waste management will get more positive input and support from the grassroots than putting up a sign, he said.

"We can be friends (with the city) but we've got to learn how to shake hands," he said.

Yet, while Grogono was prepared to take the route of compromise, many shack dwellers were still bristling a month after the signs went up.

"I don't know who ripped (the signs) down, but I was insulted too," said former shack owner Elsbeth Fielding, who saw the signs when she went to visit friends in her old neighbourhood.

"It was pretty presumptuous to say 'hey use a composting toilet' when they're pretty expensive - and (when) the rest of the world uses a ton of water (with flushable toilets)," she added, saying she wasn't surprised the signs had a short life.

"Just because I choose to live in a shack does not make me a 'dirty' person. These signs indicated to me that I, personally, am dirty," added another shack dweller, Jocelyn, who asked her last name not be used. "It is my belief that direct communication is much more beneficial then tip-toeing around and being indirect. ... The signs posted seem to be an indication from the City of Yellowknife that they have problems they would like to solve with us honey bucket users," she added.

While most dwellers agreed honey buckets were not the best environmentally, most said they either can't afford a composting toilet - they can easily run anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 - or the honey bag is likely the biggest environmental footprint they make.

"I agree honey bags aren't the most environmental thing going," said Ryan McCord. "But the city is not out in the suburbs telling them not to drive."

It seemed only one shack dweller was sad to see the signs go.

"I'm disappointed the top part (of the sign) was ripped down," said Dwayne Wohlgemuth. "I thought it was a great sign, I thought it was awesome."

"The honey bags are just a mess. You have all these gross, unsanitary, unbiodegradable bags afterwards. Like what do you do with them? They litter the lagoon and they just go to the landfill," said Wohlgemuth, who built a homemade composting toilet for his shack.

To get everybody off honey bags, he said, the city should also subsidize composting toilets.