When it comes to infrastructure necessary in getting garbage to proper handling facilities, Alaska’s vast dimensions are working against them.
With an area twice the size of Texas, Alaska 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 airplane.
As it is, getting the garbage from Alaska’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 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. Jacobson assists the Environmental Protection Agency under a cooperative agreement with the Senior Services of America, Inc., and a partnership with RurAL CAP. It is a unique arrangement among the agencies to capitalize on Jacobson’s talents and his 15 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.
“In the last 20 years, the waste stream has changed significantly,” says Jacobson. “It used to be organic waste, dead animals, and biodegradable stuff. Now, it’s plastics, hazardous materials and electronic waste.”
Today, Alaska remains as the only state operating Class III landfills—open pits accumulating 5 tons per day or less. 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 while a good share of settlements built upon permafrost don’t even know the luxury of a trench.
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 escape the trenches and blow for miles until they snag on willows or other shrubs. Some dumps have incorporated chain link fences in an effort to contain flying debris.
In 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 dump sites and burn barrels stay stratified at ground level in the still air surrounding villages—sometimes for weeks.
Evidence suggests that the effects of open dump sites 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 and preterm births due to proximity to the open dumps. Widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that the present management of the rural waste stream has led to increased respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses.
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.
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.
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 1,500 degrees, which destroys much of the toxins. Jacobson says the burn units have been a popular alternative to incinerators, which would require fuel to run them. “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. 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 dump site 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.
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 is going to be nearly impossible,” says Jacobson. “But if we can use grant money to create infrastructure then gravitate toward a fee-based system, it would be a good way to maintain a successful, sustainable solid waste program.”