Can recycling save city from its garbage?

Waste Management is about to shut down Juneau's incinerators

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

Juneau residents should start thinking about how to deal with the 30,000 tons of garbage they generate every year.

Waste Management, Juneau's primary garbage management provider, will shut down its two incinerators by June 30 partly because the incinerators have reached the end of their 20-year lifespan and partly because it will cost the company a lot of money to make the two incinerators meet new federal regulations on pollutant controls.

Michael Allison, Waste Management's Southeast Alaska district manager, said the company is unlikely to buy new incinerators because they are expensive. Without the incinerators burning the trash and reducing its size, Allison estimates that Waste Management's landfill at Lemon Creek has roughly 30 years to go.

"We are filling up instead of filling out," Allison said.

To address Juneau's long-term garbage problem, there have been efforts from the city government, grassroots groups and corporations to encourage recycling and reduce consumption.

During both his terms, Mayor Bruce Botelho appointed a recycling task force. The first task force concluded in its 1990 report saying that "recycling is not a panacea but it does help avoid future costs of handling waste by extending landfill life."

In 1998, the city started its recycling program and contracted with Waste Management to recycle newspapers, aluminum cans, cardboards and glass. The nonprofit Friends of Recycling pays a courier to pick up office white paper from the State Office Building and send the paper to the recycling center. Local supermarkets such as Fred Meyer give customers 5 cents off if they bring their own grocery bags.

The efforts have made a difference. More and more people are sending recyclables to Waste Management's recycling center.

Janeann Twelker, 51, brings her own and her neighbor's recyclables to the recycling center at the landfill once every two months.

"Although I like to reuse things, there is only so much newspapers you can use unless you have baby ducks," Twelker said.

Every month, Waste Management ships two to five trailers of recyclables out.

However, fewer than 5 percent of Juneau residents are recycling, said Janet Grange, administrative officer of the city Public Works Department.

There are several reasons why Juneau's recycling program hasn't been more popular.

Storing recyclables takes space, but many houses in Juneau don't have garages. Some people are afraid that the recyclables will attract bears. Grange said Waste Management hasn't been able to well-publicize its recycling program.

Brett Farrell, who has lived in Juneau since the summer of 2002, wasn't aware that Juneau had a recycling program until he was appointed to the mayor's recycling task force committee in February.

Questions about the cost-effectiveness of recycling may be a factor in the lack of enthusiasm for recycling.

Unlike many cities in the Lower 48, Juneau doesn't have a curbside pickup recycling program. Residents have to bring their recyclables to the recycling center every Wednesday and Saturday. Although there have been discussions about starting a curbside pickup program in Juneau, the city didn't do it because it didn't know whether it was feasible financially.

And the recycling business is not always profitable.

"One of the unique problems we face here in Juneau is economy of scale," Allison said. "In a larger market, they can bring in enough volumes of recyclables to process and sell. We don't have enough volumes here."

And like everything else in Juneau, there is a shipping cost. Waste Management ships out the recyclables to Washington state for processing. Each trailer, according to its weight and size, costs between $800 and $1,500.

The price for each recyclable fluctuates every month. Right now, cardboards are a hot item and worth $70 a ton. Plastics used to be a money-losing item, but the price for recycled plastics keeps rising and the city now wants to include it in its next contract.

To address these problems - many of which were mentioned in the 1990 recycling task force's report but haven't been solved yet - the city and various organizations have been studying how to motivate people to reduce consumption, reuse and recycle.

As Waste Management's contract expires in July, Grange wants whoever wins the new contract to stress educating people and promoting recycling. Mayor Botelho said he might ask the city to conduct a feasibility study about curbside pickups. And whether or not Juneau residents are recycling, they are paying $4.50 a month for recycling, which is included in the wastewater and sewer bills.

"Recycling can be an economic engine and a good community effort," said Frankie Pillifant, chairwoman of the 2004 mayor-appointed waste management task force.

Looking out at the landfill from his office, Allison said technology might advance so much in 30 years that Juneau might not need a landfill to solve its trash problem, or it can simply send the trash out, like many other towns in Alaska.

From his window, Allison can see bald eagles and crows perch on the smoking charcoal-like mass. Cubes of pressed tin cans look like modern sculptures with shining collages of colors. Gray smoke from the two incinerators hovers over the landfill 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We can do many things to deal with Juneau's trash problem, but recycling and reducing the types of things we put in the landfill may be the easiest," Allison said. "It is something we all can do. It not only helps the environment but also helps our landfill not to be filled as fast as it is now."

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