WASILLA — Holly Thorssin pulled up to Matsu Valley Rebuild earlier this month to donate some building supplies left over from an addition at her home near Wasilla.
The nonprofit store opened in March 2019 to sell discounted surplus or second-hand homebuilding materials that otherwise would end up in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s landfill.
Over the past year, Thorssin said, she’s picked up cabinets and hand-painted knobs and dropped off tiles, lights, and doors.
“I love this place. The building materials ... who else is going to take this?” she said. “I’m so glad for it.”
Cast-off building materials are a major source of waste in Mat-Su, the only part of Alaska that state economists say grew through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Matsu Rebuild, which takes donated items for free, doesn’t have the space or the staffing to take even a fraction of the building waste rolling into the landfill now. The nonprofit just started a fundraising drive for a permanent home with big ambitions for the future.
“I still haven’t really tapped into the builders yet. For them time is money. To waste time and labor sorting stuff to bring it here, that’s not happening,” said Tim Zalinger, the store’s manager and nonprofit president. “If they started tomorrow bringing stuff, I would get overwhelmed in a hurry. That’s a big reason we’re looking for more space.”
The store is located in a roughly 5,000-square-foot rental a few blocks off the busy Parks Highway as it runs through downtown Wasilla.
Inside, garage shelves groan with thousands of toilets and tools, cabinet doors and countertops, jetted tubs and jars of screws. A black lab named Bernadette and a yellow lab named Eleanor — nods to Four Tops and Beatles songs — lope in and out through an open bay door that also admits a small but steady stream of customers and mosquitoes.
Matsu Valley Rebuild is looking for a building somewhere in the borough’s densely populated core between Palmer and Wasilla. A bigger space can accommodate a growing inventory but also allow the nonprofit to branch into new offerings including a pickup service, classes and workshops, a bike department and a tool library.
The next phase could eventually include the contractors busy building new homes and putting much of their leftover materials in trash bins that end up in the waste stream.
Zalinger worked in the construction industry for years before helping start the community nonprofit.
“I ended that portion of my life, being an independent contractor. I enjoyed it but the waste ...” he said. “Instead, I decided to fight crime.”
Anchorage loses, Mat-Su gains
Construction and the waste it generates are plentiful in this region where much of the population lives within about an hour’s drive of Anchorage — the source of at least some of the region’s growth, state officials say.
Mat-Su has grown steadily for more than 40 years, even through the pandemic, putting it in a category of its own in Alaska, according to this month’s “Alaska Economic Trends” publication from the state Department of Labor. The borough, where COVID-19 restrictions were lifted long before those in Anchorage, maintained more retail jobs and also benefited from residents working from home, economists say. Mat-Su was also in growth mode as Anchorage was coming out of recession.
The borough’s current population of nearly 112,000 includes people leaving Anchorage, state economist Neal Fried wrote in the Trends report. In 2021, nearly 3,000 Anchorage residents moved to the borough, while about half that number of Mat-Su residents moved to the city, Fried said. “Some of Anchorage’s losses are Mat-Su’s gains, and that exchange is an annual event.”
Half of Alaska’s new homes last year were built in Mat-Su, home to only 15% of the state’s population, according to state data. Just under a quarter were built in Anchorage.
Given the numbers, it’s not surprising the Mat-Su borough landfill is experiencing a significant increase in construction and demolition waste. Between 2022 and 2021, that stream increased by more than 20% from 16,800 tons to 20,200 tons, according to Jeff Smith, the borough’s solid waste division manager.
The borough’s 620-acre landfill has a separate, expanded cell devoted to construction and demolition waste. A nonprofit, Valley Community Recycling Solutions, operates a recycling center at the landfill but takes no building materials. Smith said the borough is working to develop a construction waste re-use center in coordination with the recycling center, but that’s a few years out.
In the meantime, he said, landfill employees hand out Matsu Valley Rebuild cards when they can, mostly to homeowners. Matsu Valley Rebuild data shows the store has spared more than 850 doors, upwards of 2,000 light fixtures, and thousands of feet of pipe, flooring, trim and lumber from the landfill.
“It’s a real benefit,” Smith said. “They take it for free. We tell them, save some money and run it over there.”
‘Thrift stores don’t really carry this stuff’
Most of the people donating and shopping at Matsu Valley Rebuild are do-it-yourself homeowners and tinkerers.
Jacob Marshall, a 31-year-old federal crew member on Alaska Army National Guard Chinook helicopters, was deep inside the store earlier this month picking through roofing nails and adjustable joint hangars for a chicken coop at the Wasilla home he shares with his fiancé.
”I found a bunch of stuff I need and don’t need,” Marshall said. “Thrift stores don’t really carry this stuff, but it’s nice one-off hardware.”
The store gets a lot of donations from people passing along family collections or tools: 50-year-old “cool stuff” that Zalinger calls Alaska antiques. Homeowners bring in new material they buy and end up not using. He tries to set prices at 50% of retail or less, a bonus to shopping at the store that customers say they appreciate as construction costs remain elevated.
Since 2020, the year after Matsu Valley Rebuild opened, more than 80% of construction materials experienced significant cost increases with an average increase of 19%, according to a construction materials report from construction cost data tracking firm Gordian.
But moving low-cost stuff back onto the market isn’t driving Zalinger’s model. He’s focused on reducing the waste stream.
“I’m not trying to get rid of everything as fast as possible. I don’t want people to buy stuff just because it’s cheap,” he said. “I want them to because they need it and it’s affordable.”