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Separating myth from the reality of recycling in Alaska

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter
istockphoto

As the custom usually goes, someone separates a penny out of a handful of change and makes a wish while tossing it into a fountain. It’s kind of like that for Soldotna’s Rhonda McCormick when it comes to her garbage.

She does the separating — cans, glass, plastic containers, newspaper, mixed paper, plastic bags and film, and cardboard — from the rest of her trash and makes a wish as she tosses it all.  Hopefully, she thinks, it makes a change for the better in her community.

“I have no idea what happens to it. I’ve heard people say that they don’t think it goes anywhere, they think the dump just takes all that recycling stuff up to the landfill and dumps it in with the other garbage,” McCormick said. “I’m hoping they don’t do that, because that means what I’m doing recycling is a waste of time. But I am an optimist, and I’m hopeful that they really are doing something with it. Whenever I find a product that says, ‘This was made out of recycled materials,’ I almost kind of smile a little bit and think, ‘You know, I really am helping.’”

Jack Maryott, solid waste director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, can attest that McCormick’s wish is true.

“A common misconception that we hear oftentimes is that the borough just buries the (recyclable) waste. We hear it over and over, and we’ve heard it as long as I’ve been in the solid waste industry,” Maryott said. “And that is totally, absolutely untrue.”

Maryott said that the borough has operated a recycling program since 1992. Receptacles are available at all the solid waste transfer stations throughout the borough — as well as the Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna, the soon-to-be closed landfill in Homer and the soon-to-be-operational transfer station in Homer. Cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper, aluminum cans, glass and plastics are all accepted. What isn’t used on-site at the landfills is hauled to the landfill in Soldotna and consolidated for a trip to the Anchorage recycling center.

The borough actually is ahead of some Alaska recycling operations. In November, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities approved the use of crushed glass from household waste to be used as aggregate along with gravel in constructing the foundation of roadbeds in Department of Transportation highway and airport projects

Following that, the Municipality of Anchorage also approved the use of crushed glass as construction aggregate, and began accepting glass bottles and jars at the Anchorage Recycling Center. The industrial market for recycled glass had dried up in 2009, ending much glass recycling in Alaska and ensuring that most bottles in Alaska’s largest city went into the Anchorage landfill.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough, meanwhile, has been using glass in landfill road construction projects and as aggregate for drainage for as long as glass has been collected for recycling on the peninsula, Maryott said.

“We’ve been collecting it and utilizing it for a long time. I’m happy to hear DOT is doing that because it’s performed well for us,” he said. “The benefit to that is, at the Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna and the landfill in Homer, neither one of those has a source of gravel on-site, therefore one of the benefits is when we are able to utilize the glass, that offsets the cost of us purchasing gravel.”

The glass is collected in a pile at the Central Peninsula Landfill, then spread out in a layer and crushed by running it over with a dump truck or loader with foam-filled tires. One or two passes creates glass chunks about the diameter of a quarter, good for drainage aggregate. A few more passes pulverizes the chunks down to the diameter of a penny, which is good for roadbed construction. The glass aggregate is used as the foundation for low-traffic landfill roads, such as out to the monitoring wells, then dirt and gravel is scattered on top to form the road surface, so that no air-filled tires are coming in contact with the glass.

“It’s very low tech, we just drive over it. Depending on how we want it, we’ll drive over it multiple times, or once or twice, so we’re able to size to some degree,” Maryott said. “It’s held up well for us.”

Other recyclables collected throughout the borough are consolidated and processed at the landfill in Soldotna. The borough then contracts with a local hauler to transport the bales of recyclables to the Anchorage Recycling Center off the Seward Highway and Dowling Road, operated by RockTenn Recycling of Anchorage.

Landfill staff feed batches of materials up the conveyor belt of the landfill’s bailer, which compresses and straps the materials into compact car-sized blocks, which are loaded on a tractor trailer and driven to Anchorage.

From there, most of it is shipped to commodities recyclers in the Lower 48. Maryott said he’s heard of one outfit in Alaska that turns newspaper into blown cellulose insulation and uses it as the medium for hydrosprayed grass seed and fertilizer, but otherwise, most materials are shipped off to larger markets for the actual recycling process, incurring the not insubstantial costs of fuel and transportation.

“Logistically, Alaska is a very challenging place to make recyclables a profitable business,” Maryott said. “That’s really how you could make it work is finding an end use for it here, because transportation costs are a big hurdle.”

'Not a money-making venture'

Scrap metal, such as appliances, tin and junk cars, are handled through a partnership with Peninsula Scrap and Salvage. The borough doesn’t get compensated for the metal, but it also doesn’t incur any costs in handling or transporting the metals, as Peninsula Scrap and Salvage comes and picks it all up from the landfill.

The idea behind the borough’s recycling program is twofold. It’s partially the philosophy of being good citizens of the Earth — reusing materials to extend the life of natural resources. But the warm, fuzzy feelings from environmental friendship don’t necessarily cozy up a budgetary bottom line. And since this is a governmental operation, taxpayer dollars are in play.

“It’s typically not a money-making venture,” Maryott said.

The borough does receive some revenue from its recyclables. However, rates fluctuate widely along with the commodities market, from zilch not long ago to the current whopping $900 a ton for aluminum.

Other key rates:

• $35 a ton for mixed paper and newspaper;

• $30 a ton for corrugated cardboard;

• $40 a ton for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles, such as milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles, and

• $50 a ton for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, such as pop bottles.

Tons to Anchorage

The borough landfill in Homer has been sending, on average, 600 tons of recyclables to Anchorage per year, while the landfill in Soldotna has been sending about 900 tons per year, Maryott said.

At the same time, the borough’s average transportation cost to consolidate recyclables at the Central Peninsula Landfill and ship them to Anchorage was $108 per ton in 2010. And there are other costs such as operating the bailer and staff time to haul, sort and prepare the materials for shipment to Anchorage.

Another recycling myth --  that the instructions on disposal receptacles need not be followed verbatim. It does matter. The recycling center in Anchorage won’t take materials if they’re too “contaminated” — plastic sleeves in with the newspapers, glass in with the plastics or Campbell’s soup cans in with the aluminum soda pop cans.

“The recycler in Anchorage has a certain level of tolerance for contamination, and it’s not very much,” Maryott said.

Sorting recyclables

So borough landfill employees — tax dollars at work — have the task of sorting through the recyclables and removing anything out of place.

“As we’re processing this material and bailing it, yes, we have staff that will sit and pick through it. The little sleeves that newspapers come in, well, hypothetically, if there’s just one or two, that’s one thing. But say there’s 25 sleeved newspapers, they’ll sit there and pull them out as fast as they can. And people oftentimes throw away garbage bags full of newspapers, and those bags have to be removed,” Maryott said.

On one hand, the staff is already paid to be at the landfill, but there are other tasks they could be doing.

“It’s important for the public to know that’s important to us and that saves us time and money. Don’t put the glass in the newspaper, and don’t — and this is an extreme case — don’t throw your honey bucket in with the milk jugs,” Maryott said.

Just as the costs of recycling are varied, there’s more to the benefits than just the $40-or-so-per-ton payoff. There is a meaningful savings in space in the landfill.

Due to increasingly strict Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding solid waste landfills, the borough, like many municipalities, is transitioning to operating just one landfill. The landfills in Seward and Kenai were closed more than 20 years ago, and the Homer site will no longer bury municipal waste once its current Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation permit expires in August.

By fall, all municipal solid waste will be managed at the landfill in Soldotna, primarily because of requirements that necessitate the use of more-expensive lined cells for municipal waste disposal. The new lined cell recently completed at the Central Peninsula landfill cost $4.5 million, Maryott said, whereby the older-style, unlined cells were built for a fraction of that cost.

The current capacity of the Central Peninsula Landfill is expected to last 25 to 30 years, Maryott said. Recycling extends the life of the landfill by reducing the amount of materials being buried.

“The amazing thing about recycling is once you start it, the amount of garbage that you have diminishes so much that it’s crazy. You recycle so much stuff that you don’t hardly have any garbage,” McCormick said.

“I just think that one person can make a difference. If you have one person doing it, they can teach someone else to do it,” McCormick said. “We weren’t doing it, and then I started working at the Watershed Forum and then I started doing it, and now my mom does it, and my niece does it. If that just grows and grows and grows, eventually you have everybody doing it, and what can be bad about that?”

Jenny Neyland is editor of the Redoubt Reporter. Reach her at redoubtreporter@alaska.net.