ALLAKAKET — It was a cool, overcast day in the Koyokuk River village of Allakaket and Evelyn Esmailka was running errands in one of the community’s handful of pickup trucks.
She had mail to drop off, visitors to shuttle from the school to the tribal hall, a gift to drop off at a friend’s home and a giant bag of plastic bottles and aluminum cans to drop off at the village’s recycling center.
Esmailka, like nearly every other household in the village of just more than 100 people, recycles, diverting thousands of pounds of waste and toxic materials from the community’s landfill or one of the many burn barrels.
For that they — and future generations — have to thank the efforts of Allakaket Tribal Council Environmental Coordinator Jonathan Henzie, who helps promote and organize the community’s recycling, waste management and clean-up efforts with the help of environmental assistant Crystal Bergman.
“The main concern is just getting all these items that we can out of the community,” Henzie said. “We have a 20-year life expectancy on our dump and we recycle 100 pounds of aluminum a month. That’s a lot that would be piling up every month.”
Many cans and bottles are dropped off, but Henzie and Bergman often will go out into the community to pick up recycling bins. They also help collect electronic waste, used batteries, broken appliances and the occasional barrel with unknown contents.
Much of the recyclables are flown out in the spare room of the daily Wright Air flights, a service that the airline, along with many throughout the state, offer to villages. The aluminum is recycled in Fairbanks, paying 35 cents per pound to the community.
The e-waste and other toxics are particularly critical to collect, he said, because the community’s little landfill was never lined. That means any battery, plastic or oils could leach out into the ground, polluting the community.
Henzie has promoted the program through word of mouth, annual village clean-up events, a newsletter and is working on new ways to promote it all the time.
But the 23 year old admits that recycling or what he did with trash wasn’t much more than an afterthought when growing up.
“Honestly, I didn’t have much interest in recycling when I moved back here last year,” he said. “Growing up I didn’t remember doing anything for the environment. We learned traditional values, but I wasn’t running around to pick up trash in my free time and we never recycled.”
Henzie had been studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for two years but returned to Allakaket to help his grandfather after his grandmother died.
He took the job coordinating the Allakaket Tribal Council’s environmental department, a program that is made possible through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program.
“And now I’m always thinking of new projects and writing budgets in my spare time,” he said. “I enjoy coming up with ideas and projects to help preserve the environment.”
Henzie said his dream is to overhaul the community’s landfill, bringing in waste handling similar to the village of Bettles, where trash is bailed, some is incinerated and crushed glass is used to layer the landfill.
“My goal for it is less stuff coming in and less stuff coming out,” he said.
With an improved landfill, he said he hopes that could lead to an end of the ubiquitous burn barrels that sit at the end of most homes’ driveways.
“Currently, we burn a lot of trash outside our homes, about five feet from the road and 30 feet from the house,” he said. “That’s unsafe and Crystal and I are going to attack that with our program.”
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com