It's easy being green (and sometimes cheaper)

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2008

In the course of trying to turn the Alaskan Hotel & Bar into a green business, general manager Joshua Adams has learned more about plastic bag chemical composition than one would reasonably want to hear over a beer at the bar.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Bags are made from potatoes, corn or petroleum. They may degrade in air or water or not at all, in four weeks or in a thousand years. And finding the right supplier can be a hassle, according to Adams, who is also on the board of the local environmental group Turning the Tides.

"Going green is such a blanket statement," he said. "You have to be careful with it."

Lots of businesses talk a good green game, as is the fad these days, and it's hard to tell from words who's actually saving the planet.

Some, such as Bob Janes of Gastineau Guiding, a Juneau tour company, say that only certification based on measurable practices will separate the truly environmentally friendly from the wannabes.

But those standards are still emerging, and very few businesses in this area have spent the time and money figuring out which certification matters or how to get it.

With or without a certificate, Juneau businesses are finding myriad ways to lessen their impacts. Here's a smattering of Juneau businesses that are trying to reduce their eco-footprints in their daily practices, from major mechanical modifications to tiny tweaks.

Take out the recyclingas well as the gold

A recent ad for the Kensington gold mine, owned by Coeur Alaska, in the Juneau Empire featured tiny baby feet grasping a daisy, emphasizing the company's small and harmless footprint. That footprint was the subject of litigation, and Coeur's tailings plan for the mine changed as a result.

But there's more to the mine's ecological impact than its tailings plan, as environmental and regulatory manager Clyde Gillespie outlined.

The mine generates about 500 gallons a month of used oil, as mine owners wait for permits to be approved, from equipment oil changes, generators and pickup trucks.

That oil is shipped to Seattle and recycled into fuel for ocean liners. Gillespie said Coeur plans to burn the oil at the mine to heat buildings.

Coeur sends out its scrap metal, antifreeze and household recyclables - glass, paper, cardboard and plastic - for recycling in town or elsewhere.

General manager Tom Henderson said he's always looking for small ways to reduce the footprint: using soda dispensers instead of bottles, issuing reusable lunch bags, cleaning air filters instead of replacing them immediately.

Some of the changes are cost-effective, he said, notably recycling oil - others are "a wash," he said.

"But in our mind it's the right thing to do," he said.

Big machines, little waste

With all those glass bottles and cardboard boxes they produce, the Alaskan Brewing Co. is conscious of its potential environmental impact. So the company works to reduce waste and recycle.

After breweries suck the sugars out of grains in the brewing process, the wet grain is left. It has to be dried, and then it can be shipped out to feedlots to fatten cattle. The Juneau brewery's trick is that the heater that dries the grain is also powered by grain; that's unusual, though not unknown in other breweries, said Ashley Johnston, communications manager for the brewery.

The brewery also recycles the carbon dioxide produced in brewing, sending the gas back through to carbonate the beer, she said.

Little green details

Last summer, Rainbow Foods, the downtown natural-foods store, went cold turkey on plastic bags. It was surprisingly easy, according to owner David Ottoson.

"People were ready," he said.

Little savings add up for businesses like his. Last year the store replaced plastic forks with ones made from nongenetically modified corn.

And Ottoson is trying to identify products that seem overpackaged. For instance, he's phasing out some single-serving just-add-water noodle dishes that incorporate a plastic bowl inside a paper sleeve inside a plastic wrapping.

"You can't have a store that doesn't have any," he said. "And I'd love to get rid of the plastic water bottles, but we're not ready for that."

Little by little is also how Rachel Fredholm is greening her business, Alaska Zipline Adventures, near Eaglecrest Ski Area. One might expect an ecotourism company to be pretty green already, but Fredholm says it's not always so easy.

"Tourism operators may use the word 'eco-tour' loosely or lightly, but not follow those practices," she said.

This year, Fredholm is ordering only organic cotton T-shirts, giving out hot tea on the rain forest platforms in stainless steel mugs instead of disposables, and looking for ways to convert her vans to renewable energy.

"It is contagious," she said of the greening process. "Once you start thinking about it, it affects everything you do."

Businesses that playrecycle together

Sometimes, collaborating with other businesses can ease the pain of being good.

Bob Janes, owner of Gastineau Guiding, led an effort to get tourism businesses to recycle last year as part of the local Tourism Management Best Practices program, which involves businesses working to reduce the effects of the tourism industry on Juneau.

About a third of the roughly 60 members paid based on volume, and Janes organized the pickups.

"It was economical and easy for us," said Kirby Day, spokesman for Princess Tours.

This year, he and his fellow recyclers expect more businesses will join.

Meanwhile, Fredholm is working with cruise ship companies to put up recycling bins for water bottles downtown.

"We're hoping to inspire other people," she said.

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