Out There

recycling in the bush – is it worth it?

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on December 6, 2008

Another new change is some recycling is happening right now.  There are a couple of people in our village who work on recycling, collecting used batteries, pop cans, bottles, etc.  It must be grant funded.  They drive over to our school from Akula by boat or snowgo (1.5 miles each way), sort out the tons of nasty candy wrappers, spit cans, and other trash that gets placed in the recycling container, put the recyclables in huge plastic alpar bags, drive them back over to akula, later drive them to the runway and put them on a Hageland Aviation plane, which takes it 25 miles to Northern Air Cargo in Bethel, which flies it 400+ miles to Anchorage, where it is picked up by a Smurfit-Stone recycling company truck (the people who run the recycling center behind napa auto parts on Dowling).   I think it gets crushed and semi-processed there, and then a lot of it gets barged over 1,000 miles to Seattle or somewhere for further processing.  Now, all of these planes and barges are carrying the stuff for free or at a steep discount because it is all “back haul,” going the direction in which the vehicle is usually empty (NAC planes fly from ANC to BET stuffed full, and fly back nearly empty, so prices to send freight from BET-ANC is cheap), and because it is a “good cause” and because it is usually light (bags of pop cans are light).  Finally, we actually get a check from the Anchorage recycling people for $.35 per pound of cans we sent in.

SO.  My question is, can it possibly be worth it to go through all of those steps?  What is the benefit from a single recycled aluminum can or plastic juice bottle?  In terms of CO2 emissions and global warming, can this process be mathematically justified? I doubt it, but I really don’t know.  I do know that shipping is expensive out here, and each pop can is going through a lot of shipping.  Now, I’m all for recycling.  I want it to continue in our village just to raise the awareness level, as more of a social consciousness exercise than for the practical feasability.   And I like the idea of less trash in the landfill and on the ground outside the school (see my old entry on the styrofoam lunch trays we use).  In fact, I’ve been pushing for our student store to start accepting used cans in exchange for a 5 cent credit at the student store (which would only really cost us like 2 or 3 cents per can).  The staff member running the store is concerned that we would be inundated with cans from people all over, cans not sold from our store.  I kind of doubt it, but even if so, great we’re recycling even more!  It’s ok, we’ll just agree to disagree on that one.  : – )  Of course the best recycling is just reusing something locally.  Like in Anchorage they use the crushed glass in some local factory.   Anyway, I just had to bring up that whole recycling issue.


10 Responses

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  1. Vicki said, on December 7, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Hmmm… great timing given the recent push from our robotics team on helping the community recycle 🙂 Tammy and I were actually talking about this the other day, and I decided that, even if the numbers don’t quite match up, as long as it’s not something that’s generating debt, then I still think it’s good. I think that getting people to recycle is, if nothing else, a necessary psychological tool in helping people think responsibly about the earth.

    I feel like the can idea for the student store would be a great idea. It should include plastic bottles, too. I don’t think it would be terrible to have kids bringing in more recycling than what they actually purchased there. I suppose, in the end, if it was done to excess, then it could injure the store’s profits. We could set a cut off on credit one can earn in a day–perhaps based at the average number of drinks a person buys from the store.

    By the way, have you seen the new recycling containers I made with my students? Pretty sweet!

  2. Pete said, on December 7, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Vicki! How on earth did you find my blog? This is supposed to be a big secret. Humph! : – ) It won’t do to have people actually READING this stuff.

    I did notice the new recycling containers. Very creative and cool! And obvious which ones go where.

  3. Anne Marie said, on January 12, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Hi Peter,
    The question of “what difference does it make if the people in my community recycle” (or drive less or convert to CFLs or whatever) in the context of global climate change is always a conundrum. I know perfectly well that here in Homer, efforts by citizens to reduce their carbon emissions will have absolutely no measurable effect on atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. In a similar way, the amount I pay in federal income taxes is hardly a speck in the federal treasury. And yet the federal government cannot provide its services unless millions of people chip in to help pay for it. Likewise, we will not be able to avoid global climate disaster unless billions of people work to reduce their carbon emissions.

  4. Pete said, on January 12, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks for the comment! I think you misunderstand me, so my writing was likely less than clear. I’m not saying what difference does it make if we recycle because we are so few. I’m saying that the resources that are required to snowgo/boat/barge/fly our goods to where they can be reprocessed probably exceed the net resources that can be recycled. I think this is somewhat unique to bush alaska because we don’t have access to cheaper shipping options like truck or train or whatever, and because the distance the stuff has to go is several hundred miles. As opposed to someone in Chicago who puts his pop can in the recycle bin and it is reprocessed 5 miles away.

    So I’m all for recycling in general, and even in my village. But I privately question the actual value of “bush recycling.” Does that make my position more clear? I certainly agree with your last sentence that billions of people have to work together to avoid climate disasters. Maybe bush alaska needs its own bottling and recycling company. Small market, but a captive one, and you have the shipping advantage on every other bottling company… Not that ANYone is going to do this.

  5. Ron Newcome said, on February 11, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    There is a resource in Anchorage, ALPAR, that you should definitely contact.


    I’m dealing with similar issues in Seward which is on the road system and has some existing back-haul systems in place.

    Reasonable women and men disagree about “best practice” and the conversation is a lively one.

    Back in the day, (75-81) I worked all over bush Alaska so I have some sense of bush community dynamics and I expect the discussion could get even more “lively” out there.

    Your family presence alone sounds like a very positive addition to the community conversation whatever the end result.

    Good for you and all the best.

  6. merandaspaulding said, on April 2, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I’m doing a research project on this matter. Do you have any suggestions on where to get more information. I’m trying to come up with a plan to implement into rural ak communities to deal with littering issues. Specifically Point Hope, more recycling centers. Thank you.

    • Pete said, on April 7, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      I would think you could talk to the good folks at ALPAR, as commenter Ron suggests. I know that in my village of Kasigluk there are a couple of people who have grant-funded positions and their job is to lead all kinds of recycling efforts, environmental cleanup, etc. They collect used batteries, used flourescent light bulbs, used oil, pop cans, etc. And look online. Here are a few links: http://www.alaskapublic.org/2014/02/21/ak-rural-recycling/ And another: http://dec.alaska.gov/eh/sw/RuralAK.htm (it looks like Sandi Woods would represent Point Hope). I think its all about finding airlines who will do the backhaul flights to Fairbanks for cheap/free. Or barge it back I guess if they would do it southbound for free. Maybe they pick up empty conex containers every spring on the barges and take them back to Seattle? If so you guys could fill a couple conexes all winter with recyclables and have northland or whoever pick them up and take them to seattle. A seattle recyling company would pick up a container full of recyclables for free I would think as long as it was relatively sorted because it has actual value once it reaches seattle.

  7. merandaspaulding said, on April 9, 2014 at 11:16 am

    The major issue I keep hearing is that it costs too much to ship recycling from rural alaska. What if we built a huge recycling system closer to the interior so it doesn’t cost so much? Why hasn’t this been implemented before? Does the cold cause an issue with recycling?

    • Pete said, on April 9, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      No matter where it is built, shipping will be an issue. It is because everything goes by air, and is in relatively low quantities, which makes it way more expensive. For example, if I have something shipped from Anchorage, let’s say a treadmill, the cost of shipping from anchorage to Bethel (400 miles) on NAC is about the same cost as shipping from Bethel to Kasigluk (25 miles). It is just really labor intensive to transfer from one plane at one airline to a smaller plane at another airline and even then they have to wait until there is enough stuff going that way to justify the flight. So while a closer recycling center would undoubtedly help, it might not make actually that much of a difference. Successful recycling programs right now rely on huge quantities of scale, and we don’t have it.

      I know I might sound like a total obstructionist here. I am a recycler normally. When we stay in Anchorage we take our recyclables to the recycling center behind Napa Auto Parts. But it just doesn’t really pencil out very well in the bush. That said I did see about 20 big plastic sacks of pop cans ready to be loaded onto a Ryan Air CASA plane yesterday here in Kasigluk. I think they have an agreement where Ryan does that for free or nearly free, and NAC or Everts then takes them on to Anchorage I believe, again at the same free or nearly free rate. They can do this because 90% of their cargo is going TO the villages, not FROM the villages, so their plane is empty anyway and empty pop cans are super light so the fuel cost is near zero.

      So recycling is happening, to some extent. But only due to the efforts of 2 or 3 people in the village who have grant-funded jobs to implement recycling programs. Some villages have “clean up green up” programs once a year in the spring where they clean up trash and recyclables and often they have prizes raffled off based on how many bags of stuff you turn in. I know Unalakleet has a very successful campaign like this every year with great prizes including plane tickets to Anchorage. But there is room for much improvement. Our school has a designated bin for pop can recycling, and about 1/4 of what goes in there is trash, meaning someone has to sort it out or if not when it gets to Anchorage it will be sent to the dump because it hasn’t been separated. Also I’d say about 90% of the pop cans used in our school (like during weekend ballgames) end up in the regular trash cans, 5% in the recycling bin, and 5% on the ground outside. Most folks just don’t think about it and its hard to break established patterns of behavior. But I’m glad there are people who are in the trenches trying to bring positive change.

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