Recycling in Alaska
Slow, steady growth
When we hear or see the word “recycling,” we often think of a soda can, glass bottle, or plastic wrapping being tossed into a large, green receptacle emblazoned with the ubiquitous recycling symbol. But there is much more involved in implementing a community recycling program than placing a few recycling bins around city parks and in public gathering spots, especially in Alaska.
Logistical and economic barriers have hampered recycling efforts in Alaska in the past, but the goal of reducing the state’s environmental footprint—while saving money and resources by recycling and reusing products—has made recycling more than just a passing trend.
Recycling is slowly but steadily becoming more commonplace throughout Alaska as residents in communities throughout the state work together to find and implement innovative programs designed to solve the logistical barriers that have previously kept recycling from becoming a regular part of Alaskan’s daily lives.
The 2016-2017 “Guide to Recycling: Recycling in Anchorage and Statewide” was created and published by Alaskans for Litter Prevention & Recycling (ALPAR). During its thirty-two-year advocacy, ALPAR has worked with communities by partnering with the private sector and residents to encourage recycling efforts and make recycling in Alaska economically viable.
The most recent report highlights ALPAR programs, reminding Alaskans of numerous marketing and branding materials created to inspire communities to organize their recycling efforts to meet the nationwide call to action to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”—from litter patrols to spring cleanups and holiday event recycling to Adopt-a-Pathway—new programs are enhancing recycling efforts throughout the state.
But many people still wonder, when it comes to our homes and businesses in Alaska what encompasses recycling and what exactly can be recycled? Further, where do recycled items go and what happens to them?
What is Recyclable?
The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) is a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC centered on the promotion of recycling throughout the United States through education and networking. Waste reduction and sound recycling management practices are two of the many calls-to-action NRC strives to accomplish.
To acquaint the public with the most commonly recycled discarded items, NRC performed nationwide research to determine who is disposing of what and how. The results of the study are published online by Care2.
Of all recyclable materials, aluminum is at the top of the list, according to the NRC report. Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable and it takes 95 percent less energy to recycle an aluminum can than to manufacture a new one. PET plastic bottles are also high on the NRC’s recycling list, especially because it is estimated that Americans purchased 25 billion single-serve bottles of water in 2015, and that number will undoubtedly be even higher in 2017. Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or PETE is most easily recognized as the clear plastic used for water and soda bottle containers. Like aluminum, PET is said to be a safe, non-toxic, strong, lightweight, flexible material that is 100 percent recyclable.
Also on the “Top 10” list of most important materials to recycle are newspapers, corrugated cardboard, steel cans, HDPE plastic containers, glass, magazines, mixed paper, and computer equipment. To properly recycle each of these items requires receptacles, transportation, intake, storage, processing, and redelivery or manufacturing.
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) #2 is one of the most commonly used plastics in the US. HDPE #2 is found in milk jugs, plastic bags and refillable plastic bottles. Recycled HDPE can be used to manufacture a range of products including lawn and garden chairs, tables and other products, plastic buckets, office products, and some automobile parts.
All of these items are accepted at most Alaska recycle centers, even if they’re not actually processed in state. Additionally, there are companies that focus on equipment, appliances, tires, scrap metals, construction materials, vehicles, and liquids.
Recycling in Anchorage
The largest city in the state is also its largest recycling hub. Travis Smith, the Recycling Coordinator for the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA), says one of the primary reasons the Municipality prioritizes recycling is because it will extend the lifespan of the Anchorage landfill. The longer the landfill works for the community, the better, because constructing a new landfill is costly, especially in Alaska due to our particular geographical challenges.
Under the leadership of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, MOA’s Solid Waste Services (SWS) offers curbside recycling collection to more than 10,000 residential customers. Almost 6,000 tons of recyclable materials were picked up through the curbside program in 2016.
Smith notes that glass can’t be picked up curbside; however, the Anchorage Recycling Center, Anchorage Regional Landfill, and Central Transfer Station all accept glass jars and bottles. MOA notes that acceptable drop-offs at the three aforementioned locations include cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper, steel/tin/aluminum, plastics, glass bottles, and specialty items such as electronics, auto batteries, scrap metal, cooking oil, CFL bulbs, used motor oil, and demolition and construction debris. All of which are commensurate with the types of materials other big cities are collecting for recycling.
Handling the Big Jobs
An important area for waste recycling and management is construction and demolition (C&D). Because these projects are often large and comprehensive they tend to produce voluminous amounts of waste. Waste management planning, collection services, diversion and recycling, and reports and regulatory compliance are all integral steps to C&D waste management.
Central Recycling Services (CRS) has been in the waste recycling business since 2009. With offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks and thirty-five employees, the company services the entire state, from urban centers to rural remote communities and oil fields.
Nate Kruk has been in the waste management and recycling industry since 2004, specializing in metals. “CRS is a full-service recycling company,” he says. “We’re the only company in the state that operates a comprehensive C&D recycling center in Alaska. C&D is our niche. We can recycle wood, cardboard, sheetrock, glass, paper, plastics, concrete, asphalt, metals, batteries, household appliances, and all types of electronics.”
Kruk says differences in the mentality and economies of recycling in Alaska compared to other states are primarily based on the size of Alaska and cost of transportation. Glass, for instance, doesn’t have the same utility as it does in other states. MOA and the private Anchorage Recycling Center send donated and retrieved or discarded glass products to CRS. While most states have a facility that sorts glass by color and grade, re-melts the materials, and then transfers that material to a glass plant for new production, no such facility exists in Alaska. Instead, aggregates like concrete, asphalt, and glass are crushed and processed.
CRS processes up to 2,000 tons per day of construction debris with state-of-the-art equipment. In a video on the company’s website, Project Manager Shane Durand says their goal is to take all C&D waste, divert it from the landfill, and use the waste to create recycled, sustainable materials for new construction. Up to fifteen employees—referred to as “pickers”—remove trash from the line, isolating the wood, which is then made in to mulch or fuel product. The goal is to recycle more than 75 percent of the debris into another product.
Redefining Waste Management
As regulators, advocates, and trade associations are busy doing their part to further recycling efforts in Alaska, trash collection companies head out day-after-day to retrieve garbage at homes and businesses throughout the state’s communities.
There are approximately eleven refuse retrieval companies in the state, and the largest by far is Alaska Waste. “We provide solid waste and recycling services to Alaska customers ranging in size from single family residential homes to large commercial front-load and roll off customers,” says Alaska Waste’s Sales Manager, Craig Gales. The company also has a biodiesel processing facility and commercial composting division. Alaska Waste employs 175 workers statewide, providing regional services in Anchorage and Eagle River, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Girdwood, Whittier, Kenai, Seward, Homer, and Kodiak.
Gales says the company’s focus is to target recycling as a signature service. “Alaska Waste offers convenient Anchorage recycling services including curbside recycling, office recycling, and commercial recycling for residents and businesses of Anchorage and the surrounding area.”
The company provides three categories of recycling
- Residential Curbside Recycling is offered to 40,000 households in Anchorage and Eagle River with every-other-week collection of mixed paper, aluminum and steel cans, and plastic bottles in a 96-gallon roll cart; all recyclables can be co-mingled in one container.
- The Anchorage Office Recycling program is aimed at assisting small businesses reduce waste. Every week Alaska Waste retrieves mixed paper (cardboard, magazines, newspapers, and office paper), aluminum and tin cans, and plastic soda and water bottles.
- Commercial Dumpster Recycling offers commercial customers and businesses that produce large amounts of recyclable items receptacles including dumpsters, roll-offs, and compactors designed exclusively for recyclable materials.
Recycling Solutions in the Mat-Su
Valley Community for Recycling Solutions (VCRS) operates a nonprofit community recycling center for Alaska’s second-largest population in the Mat-Su Borough. VCRS serves about 102,000 residents and businesses, along with area communities connected by the highway system such as Denali National Park.
Since December 1997, VCRS has focused on comprehensive services and public education. The organization’s first recycling facility was designed, constructed, and certified as “Gold” level by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The facility was the first commercial industrial building in Alaska to receive this level of certification and the third recycling center in the nation to do so. VCRS has been in its permanent facility located next to the MSB Central Landfill since 2010 and is open five days a week. The capacity of this 20,000-square-foot facility, with an in-floor conveyor designed into the floor plan that feeds the two-stroke horizontal auto-tie baler, has grown significantly. “Our recycling center is ready to handle the growing needs for recycling as landfill costs rise and resources recovered from the waste stream become more valuable,” says Executive Director Mollie Boyer.
VCRS accepts numerous materials for recycling, including corrugated cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper, phone books, kitchen and aluminum beverage containers, steel cans, PET#1 plastic bottles, HDPE#2 jugs and bottles, PP#5 plastic gallon-sized containers, and HDPE#2 and LDPE#4 plastic bags and film. LDPE or low-density polyethylene is used in plastic grocery bags, garbage bags, and household plastic wrap. Polypropylene 5 (PP#5) is in drinking straws, plastic food bottles (such as syrup and ketchup bottles), and diapers.
Boyer says the program’s success comes from community members’ belief in the VCRS mission and program. Residents participate by bringing their sorted recyclables to the facility. “You need quantity and quality in recycling,” she says. “This ensures you’re able to sell your material for top dollar, and when commodity pricing is low, the material will be the first to be purchased. This also enables us to encourage the use of our material locally for manufacture by being able to provide a reliable clean feedstock,” she says.
Large and Unique Recyclables
Chris Fedele brings thirty years of industry experience to his current position of buyer and logistics supervisor for Alaska Scrap and Recycling, which started in Anchorage in 2008. Fedele says at least 70 percent of the materials the company recycles are automobiles. Automobile recycling is not a simple process, says Fedele, particularly because safety and environmental protocols require the removal of all fluids. The company even recycles those liquids, extracting the scrapped vehicles’ oil to heat its shop and filtering fuel for their equipment.
The auto scrap is crushed into cubes and shipped to the Seattle market where it’s ground into hand-sized pieces and placed onto a magnetic conveyor belt that separates piles of brass, copper, plastics, seats, and other materials. Every week during the summer, 3,000 to 7,000 tons of scrap material is barged from the Port of Anchorage to Puget Sound, a process that requires more than fourteen employees.
Along with vehicles, Alaska Scrap and Recycling also accepts and prepares heavy iron from oil rigs and construction projects that goes to mills for smelting to make new steel. Rebar made from vehicle steel is shredded at a facility in Tacoma, Washington, that can compact up to 350 tons per hour. “The process is ultimately less expensive than mining iron ore,” says Fedele. He says it’s an incredibly complex commodity because if the price of iron ore on the global market is high, scrap metal is sought after and his business booms; however, if it’s low, as it has been for the past three years, mills don’t see as much work. The West Coast typically sells to the Asian market, while the East Coast sells scrap metals primarily to Eastern Europe and Turkey, he adds.
Fedele says the company targets the road system in Alaska because the logistical challenges of the weight, size, and transportation costs of scrap metal—along with weather and geography—make for an expensive endeavor. He points out that the rural community of Bethel has a quite a few junk cars, for instance, but it’s cost-prohibitive to remove them. For two years the company recycled scrap metal out of remote communities like Adak, in the Aleutian Islands, and Cordova, but low prices have halted those services.
“Everyone with junk equipment and appliances would utilize an annual barge run in rural Alaska communities when scrap metal value was higher, but it’s simply too expensive now, and cost prohibitive.”
Liquid and Solid Waste
NRC Alaska has been processing discarded liquid and solid wastes for Alaska businesses and communities since 2000. It has almost one hundred employees and numerous facilities statewide.
The company operates a household hazardous waste collection program in several communities, including MOA. NRC Alaska’s Viking Drive facility in Anchorage is a 16,000-square-foot, non-regulated waste processing plant. Non-regulated liquid wastes, non-regulated oil sludge, petroleum contaminated materials, and contaminated absorbent materials are processed at this facility. The Viking facility is also allowed to accept and process benzene contaminated wastewaters under an exclusion permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the terms and conditions imposed by the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Final Storm Water Phase II Rule.
The Anchorage facility can process oil and fuel for energy recovery and accepts recyclable and reusable materials. It also processes contaminated water, sludge, and solids, and collects glycol and recycles by fractional distillation. “NRC Alaska is the first and only operator of fractional distillation equipment and technology that consistently produces high-quality recycled glycols. The system consists of both a flash and fractional distillation column heated by a natural gas fired boiler and state of the art computer control system,” says Paul Nielsen, director of sales and marketing for Alaska.
He adds that the company also works with remanufactured antifreeze, to formulate several universal recycled antifreeze products to meet ASTM and/or OEM manufacturer specifications for engine coolants. In addition, they can custom-blend recycled antifreeze to customer specifications. NRC does the same for HVAC coolants.
Recycling Refrigerators, HVAC Equipment, and More
Total Reclaim launched in 1991 to assist government agencies and other industries recycle refrigerators and HVAC equipment. After twenty-five years in the business, the company’s growing menu of services encompasses the spectrum of recyclable goods.
One notable milestone for the company was in 1995 when it became the first reclaimer of refrigerants in the Pacific Northwest pursuant to 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. This service allowed businesses to remain compliant with federal law, including companies in Alaska.
“Total Reclaim’s Alaska facility is mainly a collection and transfer site,” says Jake Sneddon, Alaska general manager, “but we also assist with consolidation and shipment to our Seattle facility, which includes electronics, mercury-bearing lamps and devices, industrial batteries, refrigeration products, and nonferrous metals.”
Sneddon adds that Total Reclaim also handles on and offsite refrigerant recovery; logistical support for communities shipping from rural parts of the state; backhaul consultation for rural communities to ensure safe collection; staging, handling, and packaging practices for recyclable products; and on-ground support for collection events and various recycling field projects.
The company’s website is comprehensive and offers online scheduling for pick-up of recyclable items including computers and electronics, tubes and light bulbs, large and small batteries, HVAC and appliances, and cylinders and refrigerants. The website also has a weight counter that is constantly calculating the weight of Total Reclaim’s recycled products; as of early August the weight was at more than 535 million pounds.
The environmental protection facet to the company is also manifested in its company culture. “Our commitment to environmental responsibility is at the core of everything Total Reclaim does—in our company mission, every service we offer, how we train our employees, and in every facet of our operations.”
Step by Step
As Alaska’s recycling efforts blossom, and more residents and businesses participate in the growing number of opportunities to recycle every day household items, there is there demonstrable momentum in the recycle-Alaska movement.
“A state like California or Minnesota may have as high as 50 percent to 60 percent residential recycling to some degree or another because they’ve been deploying the philosophy for decades, whereas we have about 25 percent using our recycle services in Anchorage in 2017,” says Gales with Alaska Waste. “Yet ten years ago, we only had 10 percent to 15 percent of Alaskans recycling through our programs. We’re much newer to recycling technologies and programs here in Alaska, and geography and costs play roles in determining viability, but it’s definitely growing in a good way. It certainly matters to our company and employees.”
Gales believes that more Alaskans and their businesses will pursue recycling when offered opportunities and when they fully recognize the benefits. He notes that Alaska Waste’s growing clientele is indicative of a recycling and ecosystem-friendly state-of-mind.
“Recycling may not generate a large profit margin for us, but it’s the right thing to do for our environment. Clean, green communities are what make the state so vibrant. To that end, Alaska Waste is proud to be a large part of the effort to recycle, reuse, and limit the footprint of waste in the state.”
Tom Anderson owns a public relations firm and is a freelance writer in Alaska.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.