Alaska News

Curious Alaska: What really happens to our recyclables?

Curious Alaska is a weekly feature powered by your questions. What do you want to know or want us to investigate about life in Alaska, stories behind the news or why things are the way they are? Let us know in the form at the bottom of the story.

Question: What really happens to our recyclables?

Recycling across Alaska involves a patchwork of solutions, according to Anita Nelson, executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling.

But broadly speaking, given Alaska’s lack of local manufacturing, almost all of those items are sent Outside to be recycled.

In Anchorage, the state’s most populous city, most of the recycling is sent to the Lower 48 by barge.

Materials from community drop-off sites, curbside locations and the landfill end up at the Anchorage Recycling Center off of Dowling Road. The recycled items, like paper, cardboard, some plastics, aluminum and steel, are packed into bales.

From there, the recycling heads to the Lower 48 in the shipping containers that are used to transport groceries and other goods up to Anchorage from Outside. Most of the recycled items end up in Tacoma, Washington.

[Curious Alaska: Why don’t we have a Trader Joe’s (or Ikea, or Whole Foods)?]

People worry about whether the practice of sending things down to the Lower 48 uses too much energy, but Suzanna Caldwell, recycling coordinator for the city, said that’s not the case under the current system: The shipping containers that bring goods up to Anchorage would have to head back to the Lower 48 anyway, and this way, they don’t go back empty.

The co-mingled recycling (what you set out in a curbside bin) goes to what’s called a materials recovery facility, or MRF for short. It’s a sorting center where the recycling is put on a conveyor belt and separated by magnets, lasers and robotic arms, as well as people.

After they’re all sorted, the materials head to mills and manufacturers around the country, Caldwell said.

Pre-sorted recyclables, like the kind that are in community bins or drop-off sites, skip the sorting step and head straight to manufacturers and mills instead.

Contamination happens

But sometimes, contamination happens, throwing a wrench into the process.

Contamination occurs when something that can’t be recycled ends up with other recycling. Let’s say someone puts a jug of cooking oil in with their other recyclables, and it’s crushed down with all the other items on the way to the center.

“When it gets compressed, you know, if that jug of oil is in there, it’s going to burst open and it’s going to ruin all of the other recycling,” Caldwell said. “It truly is garbage at that point.”

But an entire container or truckload ruined by a single item is rare, she said.

The worst contaminants are plastic bags, like trash bags or grocery bags. They disrupt the whole process and get stuck in the mechanics of the sorting machine at the MRF.

Recycling other kinds of plastic can be tricky: There’s a huge range of types and it is nearly ubiquitous.

In Anchorage, only plastics labeled with a No. 1 or No. 2 can be recycled. That can include many types of jugs and bottles but not yogurt containers, wrappers and plastic cups.

[How to recycle like a pro in Anchorage]

Not all recycling goes to Washington. Some cardboard stays in Alaska to be turned into insulation, and glass stays local and is turned into sand.

The city’s recycling program also collects food scraps and yard waste, which is composted at a farm in the Mat-Su.

Recycling in other parts of Alaska

Some communities in Alaska sit far from the road system and rail belt, which adds another logistical hurdle to recycling procedures.

Juneau, unlike most places in the nation, has a privately owned landfill, but they do operate a recycling center where residents can drop off sorted materials. The city takes in around 1,400 tons each year through the center. On top of that, there’s a private curbside recycling program that brings in 700 more tons of recycling each year.

The city’s program bales all the recycling and barges it south to Oregon and Washington, said Stuart Ashton, operations manager with the recycling program for the City and Borough of Juneau.

In the Southwest Alaska community of Alakanuk, “we don’t really have any way to recycle anything (directly) out here,” said Augusta Edmund, who runs the local recycling program.

But the lack of roads hasn’t stopped community members from keeping bottles and cans out of the landfill. They collect bottles and cans nearly every day, sort them and then work with airlines to fly bottles and cans out of the community and to Bethel and Anchorage for further recycling.

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