Making Alaska greener through recycling

Every day, new steps are being taken to improve recycling programs throughout Alaska. Anchorage Solid Waste Services announced in August that it would start allowing recycled greasy pizza boxes as part of Anchorage cardboard recycling. That's because grease and small amounts of cheese in pizza boxes has no effect on the recyclability of the boxes. This rule change is just the beginning and currently different avenues are being explored to improve and expand Alaska's recycling programs.

"We are always looking for opportunities to recycle more material in Anchorage," said Suzanna Caldwell, who is the recycling coordinator for Solid Waste Services. "We've expanded our organics collection programs (food scrap and yard trimming recycling) both in our curbside organics program and community compost programs."

Caldwell said Solid Waste Services also has started a commercial glass recycling program with businesses like Bear Tooth Theatre Pub and 49th State Brewing Company. She said it is hoped that small changes can help prevent valuable recyclable material from going to the landfill.

"We stopped accepting plastic bags at the Anchorage Recycling Center last September, but those can now be recycled at Carrs-Safeway stores," Caldwell told Senior Voice. "Plastic recycling is difficult all over the world. Because of the different grades of plastic, much of it is difficult to recycle since most resins can't be recycled back into the same product."

Plastic and glass

Solid Waste Services only accepts "high grade" plastics in Anchorage, which basically means it only allows plastic bottles and jugs.

"Those have a high level of recyclability compared to other types of plastics," explained Caldwell. A quick rule to remember is that a bottle or jug should have a screw cap in order for it to be recyclable. For example, plastic clamshells are not recyclable because they do not have a screw cap. The guidelines call for rinsing out all bottles and jugs to remove any liquid residue. They should be dry when you recycle them.

Laurel Andrews, who is the community outreach specialist with Alaska Waste in Anchorage, said plastics recycling is handled in the same way all other recycling is handled.

"In Anchorage, recycling is baled and backhauled to Washington. It is backhauled as a donation from Tote and Matson hauling company," Andrews said. "The barges are going back anyway, and whereas they would be empty, instead they carry our recycling. Once in Washington, it is sorted and sold. Plastics are sold both domestically and internationally."

Andrews said paper and cardboard mostly stays in the Pacific Northwest and aluminum stays domestic. She said batteries and lightbulbs can be recycled at Anchorage household hazardous waste sites located at both the Central Transfer Station and Anchorage Regional Landfill. Total Reclaim also recycles these items, but fees apply.

"Glass does not go in curbside recycling. Anchorage residents can take glass to the Anchorage Recycling Center to be recycled locally," said Andrews.

Curbside and dropping off

There are two types of residential recycling: curbside (bin outside your house) or drop-off (take to designated location). With drop-off recycling, the materials must be separated. In curbside, all the recycling is put in the bin together. Curbside recycling is available in Anchorage and Juneau. The materials are essentially the same for Anchorage and Juneau curbside.

Anchorage info:

Juneau info:

Both Anchorage and Juneau also have recycling drop-offs available. The Anchorage drop-off is at the Anchorage Regional Landfill or Westrock Anchorage Recycling Center. Andrews said Wasilla and Fairbanks do not have curbside recycling, but both have drop-off locations.

"In Wasilla it is run by VCRS (Valley Community for Recycling Services), and in Fairbanks it is run by the borough," said Andrews.

Finding the local fit

Alaskans for Litter Prevention & Recycling (ALPAR) is a nonprofit group that facilitates the movement of materials bound for recycling in the Lower 48. It works with industry leaders and shippers along the waterways and railbelts. Anita Nelson, ALPAR Executive Director, said recycling programs in each city are predicated on whether a community has access to the road or rail system or the ability to move materials through their local landfill/solid waste services.

"We leave it to each recycling center to determine which materials best fit their operating conditions," Nelson said. Some recycling centers in Alaska now are run as nonprofits and others are private or operate under city/borough entities.

"It does matter where you live. Each location has the opportunity to examine both volume and value to make recycling decisions in the best interest for their community and local citizens," said Nelson. "For example, the Valley uses a cadre of volunteers to sort recyclables into various streams. It has an extensive re-use area as well as a bookstore to earn money for their nonprofit."

She said Fairbanks is more limited in its ability to recycle due to the number of people who live in the immediate area. Sean Huntington, who is the Recycling Manager for Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) Solid Waste Division in Fairbanks, said the last few years have ushered in a great deal of change.

"When it comes to volume, materials recycled in Fairbanks has been steady, a little over 700 tons have been sent south over the last three years. This year was short due to COVID closure for two months, but we're on track," Huntington said.

FNSB accepts six different materials - aluminum beverage containers, corrugated cardboard, paper, two types of plastic and used electronics - from residents and some businesses.

"They are asked to drop clean and sorted materials off in the appropriate bin. We do not have any curbside pickup service or other locations to drop off materials," said Huntington.

The facility is operated by Fairbanks Rescue Mission, which is a nonprofit organization that utilizes a "Green Collar Jobs" training program to staff the facility. The electronics are sent to Green Star of Interior Alaska, another nonprofit in the community. These recycled materials are sent to Anchorage and then shipped via barge to Tacoma, Washington. The materials end up in mills to be processed into new materials.

"I think recycling matters, but I'm also aware how much it actually costs to recycle from Fairbanks, maybe the most northern recycling facility in the U.S.," Huntington said. "I hope we're moving in the right direction, new U.S. mills for processing and increasing market prices would help, but time will tell."

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