Penor: Juneau could be a model for waste disposal

Posted: Friday, November 20, 2009

When you meet Jim Penor, he might hand you what he calls "a conversation rock."

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

That rock, which resembles obsidian, was trash before it was vitrified a little more than a decade ago.

Though vitrification was too expensive to become widely used for regular disposal, the conversation the rock sparks is indicative of the approach Penor brings to Juneau as the city's new solid waste coordinator.

Penor, who came to the newly created position from Richland, Wash., will be helping the city develop a new waste management approach that will likely include recycling and new waste collection and disposal methods.

"I see this as a great opportunity to come in here in a city that has not been involved in the solid waste arena ... and set up a model that other cities can come in and say, 'Hey, look what's going on here,'" Penor said.

Penor has lots of ideas for what might be going on. During the last few years of his 35-year career, Penor has been learning about alternative fuels. Throughout his career he's been interested in alternatives to the traditional "entombing" of waste in a landfill.

"I wouldn't say I'm an environmentalist," he said. "But being in the waste industry ... for as many years as I've seen the changes, there's new technology on the horizon that could be beneficial for small communities."

One of the processes in which he's especially interested is thermal distillation, which involves slowly heating up trash until it is distilled into its component parts, separating components that can be used for fuel and recapturing others.

Waste-to-energy plasma gasification - a method the city has been considering - extracts energy, but Penor said while he's still getting to know Juneau's waste-stream, he doubts the city has enough waste volume to produce much that might be reusable. Incineration reduces waste mass, but gases are not collected as fuel.

"Basically if we keep continuing the way we're going, we're using up the world's resources ... to make products. But if you take those products and break them back down, you can get the resources back out," he said. "It all comes down to volume of waste generated and the technology out there to put that to good use, instead of landfilling it. If you landfill it, all you've done is entomb it. You're burying it. Let's take that resource and take another look at it."

He added, however, that is "not to say we're not going to end up landfilling."

What it comes down to is volume, cost and available technology, Penor said.

"It all costs money, so we've got to see what will work here," he said.

Penor also has other ideas, like a contest in which Juneau's youth design a mascot for beautification of the city. Part of his job is community outreach.

The Juneau Assembly said at an October meeting that the city could have a pilot recycling program in place by December 2010. City officials plan to submit an application for control of Juneau's waste stream and trash pickup to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska by February. By January, it plans to have a draft agreement for curbside collection of trash and recyclables with Arrow Refuse. The Assembly also voted to support preparing a draft ordinance on universal trash and recycling collection by the same date.

Past Assembly discussions have indicated the costs of recycling and curbside pickup will be a hurdle.

"There's going to be a lot of stuff come up. It's going to be pretty interesting, it really is. We'll see where it takes us," Penor said.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or

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