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Fairbanks may be on the verge of a recycling revolution

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: July 18, 2016
  • Published June 6, 2016

FAIRBANKS — Ariane Staples hates throwing garbage away so much that when she travels, her trash comes along.

"I fill up my second free bag with Alaska Airlines, and I take all my plastics, and anything that can't be recycled in the area, and I take that with me," Staples said. When she lands at her destination, she recycles it.

Staples sits on the Fairbanks North Star Borough recycling commission, and she recognizes most people won't go to such lengths to recycle. Raised in Florida, Staples grew up recycling everything. When she moved to Fairbanks a few years ago, she encountered a different environment – one in which recycling is limited and inconvenient.

"Nothing frustrates me more than seeing the amount of garbage that goes to the landfill," she said.

Dozens of dumpsters line the perimeter of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Farmers Loop West waste transfer site in 2014.(Marc Lester / ADN archive 2014)

During the 2015 fiscal year, Fairbanksans threw away more than 200 million pounds of trash – a total of 102,600 tons, including construction debris, brush and household garbage, said borough Solid Waste Manager Bob Jordan.

Recycling does exist in Fairbanks, but it's piecemeal and incomplete: paper and some plastics go to the Fairbanks Rescue Mission; glass and paper go to K&K Recycling; Greenstar of Interior Alaska accepts electronics; scrap metal, light bulbs and plastic bags are accepted at different providers; aluminum is accepted in multiple locations.

"We have some great programs available, but they're very disjointed," Staples said.

There's no curbside recycling, so residents must make multiple stops to recycle. Some materials have nowhere to go but the dump.

Karl Monetti, chairman of the borough recycling commission, said the borough has only a 2 percent to 3 percent recycling rate. The national average, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's most recent report, was a rate of 34 percent in 2013.

The borough hopes to change its waste numbers soon by opening a new, centralized recycling center – a plan that's been years in the works.

The idea has "got the most momentum right now than it's ever had in the last 27 years," Jordan said.

Meanwhile, the Rescue Mission announced Thursday it won't shut down its recycling operations at the end of June, as previously planned, said Executive Director Rodney Gaskins.

"We didn't want the ball to drop," Gaskins said.

The Rescue Mission now plans to continue its recycling program through the end of the year, allowing time to get the borough's facility up and running.

Greenstar, which had been preparing to step in after the Rescue Mission's departure, views the extra time as a reprieve, said Executive Director Becca Brado.

"We were hitting the ground running and desperately trying to get a program running," Brado said.

The borough is in negotiations to buy a building and lease it. So far, three entities have expressed interest in being Fairbanks' primary recycling provider.

The first, K&K Recycling, is owned by Bernie Karl, and he has big dreams for what he hopes to achieve: He wants Fairbanks to be the first waste-free city in the nation.

Chena Hot Springs Resort owner Bernie Karl gives a tour of the geothermal power plant on May 29, 2016. For the last decade the plant has generated electricity the resort needs to operate. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Karl, a longtime Fairbanksan and the owner of Chena Hot Springs resort, hopes to treat recycling differently. Right now, material is shipped to the nearest processing facility, in Tacoma, Washington — a costly endeavor.

Instead, Karl wants to re-purpose those materials. "You have to sell the products in Alaska to make it work," Karl said. Making recycling profitable is key to its sustainability, he said.

Karl has many prototype projects in the works. He has been using crushed glass and charred wood to grow hydroponic tomatoes, and the experiment that has been working well at his hot springs resort.

Hundreds of tomatoes grow from containers filled with a combination of ground up recycled glass and biochar in the production greenhouse at Chena Hot Springs Resort on May 29, 2016. Owner Bernie Karl says no soil is used to grow these tomatoes. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The company has been crushing glass into sand, making concrete blocks from paper and plastics, and turning paper products into fuel pellets and blocks.

But there isn't a market yet for the materials Karl is developing. So far, the crushed glass sits in the facility. An asphalt company expressed interest in purchasing the sand, but K&K couldn't produce enough of it to fill the need.

Chena Hot Springs Resort owner Bernie Karl holds a sample of the ground up recycled glass and biochar from which his tomatoes grow on May 29, 2016. Karl says no soil is used for the tomatoes. (Scott Jensen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Some blocks are used as fuel at Chena Hot Springs (which primarily uses geothermal power for heat and electricity). Most of the fuel pellets are also being stored, said Kayla MacDonald, project manager for K&K, alongside some of the plastic that K&K abruptly stopped accepting in 2014 after being overrun by the material.

Karl isn't deterred by false starts and delays. "I don't know where it's going to end but we're sure as hell not going to give up," he said.

Greenstar is the second provider vying for the borough contract. Executive director Becca Brado says that it is best suited for the contract because it has access to funding only available to a nonprofit organization.

"Recycling is not a traditionally lucrative industry," Brado said. The nonprofit, driven by mission and not the bottom line, has less chance of folding under monetary pressures, Brado said.

Various grants and subsidies could help stabilize the venture, Brado said, A "squadron of over 300 volunteers (will) offset labor expenses," she said.

Greenstar is looking at other recycling facility models that employ developmentally disabled adults.

"If Greenstar is able to operate the recycling center, we can do a lot of good," Brado said.

WestRock Anchorage Recycling Center is the third provider to express interest in Fairbanks' recycling facility; the company's manager was not available for comment Friday.

The borough hopes to have a recycling provider chosen by the end of the year, Jordan said. Its success is also not guaranteed.

"Is the business going to be successful? Sometimes you don't actually know that answer until after a couple years," Jordan said.

For Staples, having robust recycling is an essential for her quality of life. "I'm looking for a sustainable community that really cares about taking care of its resources," she said.

"If Fairbanks didn't come up with a way to manage their recycling I would probably choose to live somewhere else that was a little bit more aware and attune to how we're living," she said.

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