'Recyclers' decry proposed ban on Dumpster diving in Fairbanks

City Assembly looking to curb proliferation of private junkyards

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Meet Jay Hill, recycler of other people's waste.

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From the insulation in his Gilmore Trail cabin to his living room's piano and couches, Hill said he's basically rebuilt and furnished his home with materials and furniture collected from public garbage collection transfer sites around town. He either gives away the other things he collects or, on occasion, sells them for a nominal cost.

"I'm proud to be a Dumpster diver," Hill said of his frequent trips to the sites. "I consider it gambling. I spend a little bit of my time and a little bit of my gas, and if I found something, I won."

A few miles southeast of Hill's home, on 7.5 Mile Chena Hot Spring Road, live Ed and Carol Lewis.

Their home sits next door to another waste recycler - one who, to the couple's regret, has collected a mass of second-hand goods big enough to transform a 2.5-acre property into a virtual sea of blue tarps, tires, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fuel containers, trash bags and broken-down cars.

They suspect the collection comes largely from transfer sites, where they regularly spot their neighbor's sedan. Ed Lewis said the man and a family member were at the east Farmers Loop site Friday morning.

"They're not dumping anything off," Ed Lewis said. "They were making the circuit through the Dumpsters. Looking."

The difference between Hill's and the Lewises' respective situations backdrops the debate over whether people should have free access to the community's public waste stream - which arguably contains plenty of usable items, considered trash by some and treasure by others - after it's deposited in public trash bins.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly is considering a proposal that, if approved, would prohibit anyone, aside from authorized trash-hauling contractors, from removing items from the bins.

The prohibition would not apply to designated recycling reuse areas at five of the community's 14 transfer sites, exempting them from the ban. The assembly has scheduled a public hearing on the plan for Thursday at the borough's downtown administrative center at 809 Pioneer Road. The meeting begins at 6 p.m., and the hearing is slated to start at or shortly after 7.

Sponsor and assemblyman Charlie Rex said he's focused much of his four years on the assembly looking to curb the proliferation of private "junkyards" - private properties filled to the brim with unstored items and materials - in and outside of town. He said his recent proposal looks to cut off junk collectors at a primary source.

The proposal has caused a stir, with support emerging for the public's right to reduce the waste stream's volume while tapping a marketplace for free goods in the process.

Hill, a former equipment operator and musician who founded the annual Great Alaskan Foodstock fundraiser and festival, said the lion's share of lumber and insulation at his home was recycled.

At his house last week, Hill swiftly rattled off a fraction of his list of acquisitions, saying he can't look anywhere in his house without seeing something he found at a transfer site.

A tanning bed. Scrap metal. A drum set. A home computer.

"Sinks. Countertops. Cabinets," he said. "I have stacks of art upstairs, stuff I've found over the years. Nice stuff - signed prints."

A glance at the yard outside Hill's window reveals an inventory of items that have yet to be put back into use, including a front door he said he plans to install soon.

Hill is taking advantage of a right cited by garbage diving and recycling proponents as productive and environmentally sound - not only can much of the waste stream be put back to use, doing so keeps trash out of the borough's ever-growing landfill.

"Speak to a self-identified and habitual Dumpster diver," John Hoffman, author of "Art and Science of Dumpster Diving," wrote to the News-Miner in a Nov. 2 e-mail. "Tell me these are not creative, wonderful, moral people who have their head on straight when it comes to the value of human property and human life, the two of which are closely intertwined."

Rex said while opponents of his plan may be vocal, he believes the silent majority in Fairbanks wants the borough to make some changes to the way transfer sites operate.

Fairbanks officials have drawn a link between the proliferation of private junkyards and withdrawals made at the transfer sites and their recycling reuse areas. Last year, draft recommendations released following meetings of a junkyard-focused task force suggested "recycling activities occurring at transfer stations be curtailed and that a 'community organized and operated re-use center' be established" somewhere in the borough instead.

Rex said he supports the concept of putting worthy items back to use and suggested the borough could take future steps to encourage better and more responsible use of the reuse areas, possibly by establishing separate entrances.

He said it's unfortunate habitual collectors leave policy-makers with what he views as a black-or-white decision - either let people access the waste stream or cut access off completely.

"We're creating multiple junkyards by allowing that to go on," he said. "People abuse it, they just abuse it."

Chena Hot Springs Road resident Carol Lewis wrote to borough officials this summer that their neighbor's pile of "junk" had grown exponentially until the property began to look as it did Saturday - moguls of snow and blue tarps atop a 2.5-acre pasture of second-hand goods.

She suggested the sight reduces property values in their neighborhood.

"If I saw that next door, I'd walk away. I wouldn't look twice," she said, referring to a potential homebuyer. "Who wants to live next to something like that?"

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