Garbage geeking in Alaska

I often read and hear descriptions of the Last Frontier State as “pristine” and “wilderness,” and I must admit being smitten with Alaska’s vast dimensions and sparse population, but the hand of man has undoubtedly made its mark here.

Most places where tourists go are carefully tended to perpetuate the ideals that visitors seek. However, environmental management goes far beyond scenic trails and ports of call. Alaska has many “heavy” industries (e.g., oil and mining) that are subject to government regulations. Some visitors love to hate them, but what tourists (and residents) leave behind also makes significant impacts on Alaska’s landscapes and watersheds. It’s just that you don’t see them so much, unless you really go looking.

Welcome to my world. My name is Andy, and I am a Garbage Geek.

Street sign in Anchorage

Like most tourists, I spent the bulk of my time in Alaska exploring its impressive natural and cultural attractions, but I did make a little time to go in search of trash and those who manage it here. I didn’t get as far I would have liked, but what I did find was quite interesting and I daresay unique in the U.S.

Helping around the house in Seward meant several trips to the transfer station. On the first one, friends and I hauled a trailer full of trash and recyclables. After helping to sort and empty our load, I took some pictures (and got funny looks in the process). The place was nicely laid-out and it was obvious that those who recycled were careful to follow directions; contamination was nil. However, my observation of others’ behavior suggests that recycling participation is not the norm.

There was a bunker for hazardous wastes, which ought to be a priority for Alaska considering the conditions of most dumping grounds. However, it was locked and we were told to bring back a spent fluorescent tube on one of the few days it would be open. I wonder how many residents would be so patient, as opposed to just tossing it in with the regular trash just to be rid of it? The latter certainly would have been easier, since our next chore was filling the trailer with logs for firewood.

Do-it-yourself is a way of life in Alaska, which is a nice change of pace from the dominant consumer-driven culture of present-day Florida. I thought the landfill operator was going to scold us for scavenging (which is banned in Pinellas County where I used to work), but instead he showed us where to find a better pile of firewood. He did give us a friendly warning about brown bears seen around the facility.

In Anchorage, I visited the offices of Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials as well as a non-profit that focuses on capacity-building in remote bush communities. There are only a handful of lined landfills for residential waste in Alaska, most in close proximity to its few urban areas. Photos that one DEC staffer showed me of disposal operations in the bush seemed a lot like ones I’ve seen in developing countries. (Fellow garbage geeks may be interested to read Alaska’s solid waste regulations, especially definitions (starting page 33) for Class I, II and III facilities.)

There was news about the state’s first landfill gas project in Anchorage and a DEC staffer explained the installation of a new conductive liner system for a drilling waste disposal site, both of which appealed to my optimistic side. But the overall assessment of waste management in Alaska is not good. For what it’s worth, DEC staff I spoke with noted much better success in regulating commercial waste generators than residents. They were most frustrated by compliance efforts and bureaucratic nightmares of working with bush communities and layers of local and tribal governance.

In contrast, Zender Environmental Group‘s capacity-building approach seemed considerably more successful. (In fairness, Zender’s clients want to collaborate with them; DPC must attempt to regulate all disposal facilities, including some that are mighty uncooperative.) Federal support comes from grants by the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Zender recruits environmental coordinators from bush communities to train and assist them in planning and management efforts. Other neat projects I learned about included multimedia demonstration programs.

I was struck by the handicap that stems from institutional structures which may work well in the lower 48, but are ill-suited for cultural and environmental conditions in Alaska. Clearly, Zender’s founder and colleagues have found grass-roots empowerment — rather than top-down enforcement — to be more effective. The challenge now, it would seem, is scaling up the reach of this alternative approach. However, Zender’s note to first-time visitors speaks to the difficulty of overcoming generations of cultural bias in such an endeavor. Indeed, it was the following statement that really piqued my interest in meeting them:

“…those unfamiliar with the conditions and circumstances in Alaska Native Villages are apt to generate seemingly obvious solutions to the Village solid waste and water sanitation problems. However, there are many reasons that these problems exist. These reasons include socio-, cultural-, economic, legal-, logistical-, and infrastructural considerations and all must be taken into account or failure will likely result (and has, in numerous instances). Wherever in the world you are, no project, no program, and no protocol will succeed in the long-term without the explicit involvement of, guidance by, and courteous respect for, the people who are to benefit. Conventional engineering only works in conventional communities because the context is implicitly included. Engineering in non-conventional communities must be carried out by explicitly revisiting each assumption and replacing it with one that fits.”

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3 thoughts on “Garbage geeking in Alaska

  1. Pingback: Head in the clouds, feet on the ground | The Goat's gap-year

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