Alaska Begins its Future of Solid Waste Management

Although Alaska remains as the only state operating Class III landfills—open pits receiving less than 5 tons per day—efforts are being made to implement an adequate infrastructure and reduce solid waste.

It seems only fitting that the state earning the moniker as the last frontier might be slightly behind the times when it comes to managing solid waste. Alaska celebrated 50 years of statehood last year, and while many gathered at picnics and other events to lionize improvements to the state’s scant matrix of roads, and the construction of schools, airports and medical facilities, solid waste professionals continued in the resolve of making slow but steady gains in the way Alaska handles its trash.

Extreme Reaches

When it comes to infrastructure necessary in getting that trash to proper handling facilities, Alaska’s vast dimensions are working against them. With an area of 656,000 square miles—more than twice the size of Texas—the state lays claim to 33,000 miles of coastline, 3 million lakes, 100,000 glaciers and 40 active volcanoes. In terms of solid waste management, however, Alaska is comprised of around 375 communities, only about 100 of which are accessible by a meager 2,000-mile road system. That means that any materials shipped in or out of Bush Alaska, arrive by boats or airplanes.

As it is, getting the garbage from the state’s extreme reaches to adequate landfills may take another lifetime. But time is running out for many of its remote communities. More than 50 years of dumping, tossing and spilling has taken its toll, and even now, solid waste continues accumulating at a rate inundating many village dumpsites. While an obvious solution would be to reverse the flow of trash out of Bush Alaska, many villagers have found themselves swimming against the swift current of an economic system that has provided for the transporting the goods going in but not back out.

I think cost is one of the main hurdles,” says Ted Jacobson, Tribal Solid Waste Liaison, for the Environmental Protection Agency Alaska. Jacobson assists the EPA under a cooperative agreement with the Senior Services of America, Inc., and a partnership with the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP) in Anchorage. It is a unique arrangement among the agencies to capitalize on Jacobson’s talents and his15 years of experience in solid waste solutions, but Jacobson’s title has often been whittled to “Garbage Guru” by those who summon him to visit far-flung villages in hopes that he can offer advice.

What Jacobson and his peers frequently find themselves up against on their visits also has ties to Alaska history. Shortly after becoming a state in 1959, the newly formed government mandated the building of schools, which began a race to ship supplies into remote outposts. In the 1960s, however, villages were not the establishments they are today, which meant that small tugboats and barges landed on shallow beaches or wallowed their way up ox-bowed rivers to drop off building materials and other goods at small trading posts, fish camps or other sites. As it turned out, many of the sites had been used only seasonally.

When schools came along, permanent settlements quickly grew around them. An important consideration left out as the young villages took shape were plans to deal with solid waste. In the absence of those plans, rural dumps began bulging with scrap steel, asbestos, lead-acid batteries, drums filled with old fuel, waste oils, paints or hazardous chemicals. In the same dumpsites, those materials have been mixed with household garbage and raw sewage. As rural Alaska modernized, washers, dryers and other appliances found their way upriver, downriver or along the coast along with automobiles, snowmobiles and ATVs. The packaging of the consumable goods going in, meanwhile, evolved from canvas and steel to cardboard, aluminum and an array of plastics. More recently, the blend has come to include computers, cell phones and office equipment. “In the last 20 years, the waste stream has changed significantly,” says Jacobson. “It used to be organic waste, dead animals, biodegradable stuff. Now, it’s plastics, hazardous materials and electronic waste.”

Dire Dumpsites

Today, Alaska remains as the only state operating Class III landfills—open pits receiving less than 5 tons per day. Given the dire conditions of its dumps, Alaska was granted primacy over federal regulations. An estimated 95 percent of rural Alaska villages use open dumpsites. Many of those consist of a shallow trench cut into the tundra, or in many cases, waste is dumped on the surface or tossed into a tundra pond.

What’s worse, many of those same dumps lie within bounds of the communities, and a substantial portion of those communities lie but a few feet above the water table. The leachate from the dumpsites consists of spilled diesel, waste oil, battery acid, sewage, a myriad of other chemicals and hazardous household wastes that have contaminated water used for drinking and subsistence needs. When the winter winds blow, plastic shopping bags and other wind-blown trash escape the trenches and travel for miles before snagging on willows or other shrubs. Some dumps have incorporated chain link fences in an effort to contain flying debris. In the summer, bears, dogs, birds and flies visit the sites and vector the juices back into town. In an attempt to reduce volume and keep flying debris at bay, dump fires are common. Even more common has been a propensity by residents to reduce household solid waste volumes via burning barrels. In winter, when high-pressure systems form and temperature inversions and grip the land in cold, fumes and toxins from the open burning in the village dumpsites and burn barrels stay stratified at ground level in the still air surrounding villages—sometimes for weeks.

If you look back to the 1950s in the Lower 48,” says Jacobson, “a lot of the dumpsites in rural Alaska are operating similar today—open burning, minimal or no compaction, separation or cover.” Evidence suggests that the effects of open dumpsites have caught up. Outcomes from a 2006 study examining more than 10,000 women from nearly 200 villages found a correlation between low birth weights, preterm birth and intrauterine growth retardation and proximity to the open dumps. Other studies have linked inhibited sexual development among teenaged boys and girls to their proximity to low-temperature solid waste burning. Meanwhile, widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that the present management of the rural waste stream has led to increased respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses. “There is a direct correlation with low temperature burning of solid waste and respiratory disease, primarily among elders and children,” says Jacobson.

Small Steps

For community leaders wanting to make changes in a strapped economy, separating the old vehicles, snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, boats, refrigerators, washing machines and clothes dryers from the tons of disposable diapers, discarded animal viscera and other waste, seems like a good place to start. “To make a snowman, you first have to start with a snowball,” says Jacobson.

For some communities, the small steps have already led to notable gains. By some estimates, nearly half of Alaska’s rural communities are without suitable sources of potable water. As such, the costs associated with shipping in the water rivals that of soda pop. That soda pop has replaced water in terms of popularity has becomes blatantly obvious by mountainous accumulations of empty aluminum cans. The large volumes of empty cans have since spawned the development of a program designed to get the aluminum back out, sell it in scrap markets and pass the profits back to the communities. The program, Flying Cans, is the brainchild of Mary Fisher, director of Alaskan for Litter Prevention And Recycling (ALPAR) in Anchorage.

Since its inception in 1988, Flying Cans has grown its presence to include 90 communities. In an average year, around 50 communities pack aluminum into airplanes bound for Anchorage, says Fisher. The 2009tally of aluminum cans, as of November, came to more than of 26,000 pounds. The program works on a unique partnership among about a dozen of Alaska’s local airlines which have partnered in the effort by donating empty cargo space on planes to backhaul the cans to larger communities where larger freight airlines pick them up for delivery to Anchorage. “The program enables those living in Alaska’s remote communities that are off the road system to save aluminum cans and sell them to the Anchorage Recycling Center at the same price paid to those who bring cans in their family car,” says Fisher.

Large-scale efforts to backhaul metals, mainly aluminum and steel, from rural Alaska began in the mid 1990s, when freight companies sailing north to Alaska from Seattle attempted to increase their profits by hauling scrap metal south after delivering groceries and other goods along the state’s rugged coastline or far up the rivers. Though it made sense that barges returning to ports along the West Coast with metals would bring more profit than the barges returning empty, the costs of loading and unloading old vehicles or other scrap aboard the barges—and the liabilities freight companies faced in the event that they lost their trash in transit—limited backhauling ventures for years. The idea of backhauling felt a renewed sense of optimism a few years ago, when the price of scrap steel and other metals appeared profitable enough that some recyclers considered chartering tugs and barges in hopes of bringing Alaska’s scrap metals south to large-scale recycling facilities. Since markets slumped in late 2008, however, those companies have backed off and have put efforts on hold until markets rebound and backhauling ventures again prove profitable.

Reducing Solid Waste

In the meantime, environmental departments within many communities have been staging tons of old equipment, vehicles, refrigerators and white goods for eventual backhaul. In the short term, the staging accomplishes separation. As for the rest of the trash, an increasing number of communities have incorporated the use of “burn units” to reduce substantial volumes of garbage. The burn units of the past couple of years operate much like an oversized wood stove, replete with loading doors at the front, draft vents near their bottoms and a smokestack protruding conspicuously from their tops. While earlier versions of the units were merely steel boxes that kept burning temperatures low, the newer models generate temperatures well above 1,400 degrees and shorter burn cycles, which destroy much of the toxins. Jacobson says the burn units have been a popular alternative to incinerators, which would require fuel to run them. Diesel delivered to many villages runs upward of $7 per gallon. The units can reduce 150 cubic yards of trash in around 8 hours. “They’re stand alone, low tech and have no energy consumption, compared to incinerators,” he says.

In Jacobson’s exploration of other ways to reduce solid waste volumes, he took on an experimental project in 2008 to find out how to improve rural dumpsites with minimal labor, equipment and fuel. The Denali Commission, a federal funding organization that provides training and implementation of solid waste project in Anchorage, had set aside $600,000 for solid waste upgrades in 14 communities. Jacobson served as technical advisor. For his test community he chose the village of Buckland in Alaska’s far northwest corner. With a population of 385, Buckland exemplified many rural communities: There had been very little dumpsite maintenance. There was no controlled access to the site. The waste was not covered. Water formed pools at the site. There was solid waste mixed into the nearby sewage lagoon. “I had visited previously and saw the conditions there,” says Jacobson. “I wanted to find out what it would take to consolidate, compact and clean up a generic dumpsite.”

Within a few phone calls, Jacobson was able to secure the use of an excavator and a crawler dozer that had been used during a recent water and sewer project in the village. He flew up a few weeks later, fired up the equipment and put his expertise to work. Thirty-six man-hours and 150 gallons of diesel later, the dumpsite had transformed from a single mound of mixed solid waste to several 4-foot high peninsulas of trash and an access route throughout the dump. Jacobson adds that the project added at least five years to the life of the dump, and if administrators at Buckland implement his suggestions of controlling access, recycling, backhauling, separating solid waste and adding a separate pit for dead animal carcasses, life of the site could extend even longer.

Jacobson points out that another dumpsite cleanup project in the village of Eek, near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, has also realized significant results with minimal use of equipment. ‘The majority of the Eek cleanup was done by hand,” says Jacobson. “The groundwater is within inches of Eek.” That meant that much of the work had to be done in spring before the tundra thawed. Jacobson adds that the bulk of the solid waste was relocated to a more suitable area and that workers there were able to compact it and add cover.

Implementing an Adequate Infrastructure

As for the future of solid waste management in Alaska, Jacobson believes in the eventual formation of adequate infrastructure. “Implementing a program through a fee structure could be nearly impossible at first,” says Jacobson. “But if we can use grant money to create infrastructure then gravitate toward a fee-based system, that could be a good way to maintain a successful, sustainable solid waste program.” Jacobson adds that Alaska’s vast geography—there are five different climate and terrain conditions—will require individual solutions, and he’s optimistic, overall. “No one shoe fits all,” says Jacobson. “But with forward thinking and patience, there is light appearing at the end of the tunnel.”

Ted Jacobson is Solid Waste Tribal Liaison for the State of Alaska. He is assisting the Environmental Protection Agency under a cooperative agreement with the Senior Services America inc. (SSAi) and the Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program. Ted can be reached at (907)865-7363 or via e-mail at [email protected]m.