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Rethinking Recycling


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Since the early 1970s that slogan has been used to bring awareness to increasing air pollution, water contamination, and unchecked waste. In many parts of the Lower 48, recycling is not just second nature, it’s expected. Instead of pushing one garbage bin the curb for pickup, residents line up their municipality-provided recycling bins with their contents meticulously separated into paper, plastic, glass, and “other.”

In Alaska, where less than 5 percent of the population recycles,

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” requires a fourth “R”: Rethink. The “re-thinking” is that it will benefit Alaska’s communities to take a new look at waste, whether that’s working to minimize the logistical challenges that stand in the way of moving, storing, or recycling waste appropriately or discovering new ways recycling can serve as an economic and environmental boon.

At its most basic, recycling is defined as converting waste products into new products: sounds simple. But Alaskans know that in the Last Frontier it’s rare that any endeavor is simple. Improving our recycling record will require Alaskan fortitude, creativity, and a strong desire to make a difference; and because those characteristics already exist throughout the state in each community, the foundation for change has already been laid.

Alaska is home to more than 200 municipal landfills and an additional 115 waste storage, treatment, or disposal facilities that support Alaska industries, including oil and gas, mining, timber, construction, fishing, and tourism, according to the State of Alaska’s Division of Environmental Health Solid Waste Program website. No matter the amount of space available, the need remains to keep recyclable materials out of Alaska’s landfills. The longer our landfills work for their communities, the better—not just because constructing a new landfill is costly but because in most cases, it’s not necessary: not if we rethink how we handle our “garbage.” For example, in a recent road project in Anchorage, glass waste was diverted from the landfill, crushed, and used as clean fill without any additional cost to the project. Everyone wins.

Much like recycling waste, Alaska’s residents are also focused on recycling and rethinking how they create and use energy. Communities statewide are realizing the benefits of turning glass, metal, and paper into reusable materials and finding renewable sources of energy. Especially in the state’s most rural areas, such as the small Alaska Native community of Hughes. Locals are taking advantage of energy resources including biomass fuel, which uses organic materials (in this case wood) as a renewable and sustainable source of energy to produce electricity. Hughes is also a prime example of hybrid energy at work. The community of no more than ninety people uses a mix of biomass, solar, and diesel to power and heat its homes, school, church, and tribal offices. (Quick note: Look for a feature story on touring Hughes in our September issue).

In this issue we look at how rural villages across the state are rethinking how to reuse, recycle, and reduce waste. We also examine renewable and hybrid energy sources and offer up examples of how alternative energy is making an economic difference in Alaska’s communities. While oil is and will remain the backbone of Alaska’s economy and a primary source of fuel and energy production, the state’s energy needs are growing, making room for diversified energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass boilers, all of which can help reduce energy costs in communities that badly need a break from the high cost of... everything.

In addition to our Environmental Services and Energy & Power Special Sections, the August issue features a special guest column on the state of housing in Anchorage, the final entry of an exceptional, three-part series on Alaska’s burgeoning graphic design industry, and how Alaska became a premier travel destination for Chinese tourists.


This article first appeared in the August 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.

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