Oil and gas economics drive Alaska. Residents, politicians, activists and the media follow the oil and gas markets very closely and for good reasons. What most people don't follow is the connection between the price of oil and recycling markets, and what it means for our community.
Falling oil prices and the correlated drop in the cost of energy coupled with a downturn in the Chinese economy and a recent crackdown on accepting contaminated materials have caused a storm for the recycling industry. Some manufacturers are seeing that it's cheaper to use virgin materials than recycled materials. This is an issue.
Recycling is a service that simultaneously benefits residents of Anchorage and the environment. Removing nonorganic, recyclable material from the waste stream expands the lifespan of the Anchorage Regional Landfill. The more we divert recyclable material away from the landfill, the more efficient we are at collecting landfill gas from organic material, such as food waste, and turning it into clean energy.
As for the environment: recycling one ton of newspaper saves 17 trees, recycling aluminum cans uses 95 percent less energy than making a can from virgin material and recycling one ton of cardboard saves 9 cubic yards of landfill space. The benefits of recycling are definitely still there.
There's not much room for error when the market for recyclables is this low. It's important to keep the value of our recyclables as high as possible, and we can do this by making sure materials are free from contamination when delivered to any recycling center, or placed in your curbside roll cart.
Contamination in recycling refers to an item being tossed in a bin when it shouldn't be. For example, a plastic clamshell container from the salad bar is a contaminant in Anchorage when accidentally mixed with plastic bottles or jugs. Due to the current state of the commodity market, recyclers and their buyers want recyclables that are free of contaminants.
To be clear, recycling in Anchorage is not in jeopardy. The long-standing partnership between the Municipality of Anchorage Solid Waste Services, Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling and the business community help make our local recycling services viable.
Recycling right is key.
A common question we get is, "Why don't we recycle yogurt tubs or other plastic containers other than bottles and jugs?" The simple answer is economic. "Nonbottle" plastics have a different chemical makeup than bottles. PETE (#1) bottles and HDPE (#2) jugs are the high-value plastics. So, even though tubs or clamshells may have a number 1 or 2 on them, these nonbottle containers have a significantly lower value in the marketplace.
If mixed with "high-value" bottles, all is significantly less valuable. In Anchorage and most other communities in Alaska, we have opted to recycle only the highest value plastics in order to make recycling sustainable long term. During these times it's essential that we focus our energy on the most profitable materials including aluminum, paper and cardboard.
In 2016, let's set our sights on efficiency. Let's make a New Year's resolution to recycle right.
You're going to see us at schools teaching about the recycling system and how to recycle right. You'll see us on Facebook and Twitter with information that will help residents recycle right. Our community is full of great recyclers, both private and public, and we're working together to make sure that recycling is here to stay in Anchorage.
If you have questions or are interested in touring any of our facilities, including our landfill, call Solid Waste at 343-6275. If you want to volunteer for recycling and litter-prevention efforts, please call ALPAR at 274-3266.
Travis Smith is the Solid Waste Services recycling coordinator for the municipality of Anchorage. Mary Fisher is executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling.
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