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Taking stock of Alaska’s recycling progress and challenges

  • Author: Mary Fisher
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 15, 2018
  • Published November 15, 2018

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Nov. 15 is the day we celebrate recycling. It’s a good time to focus on what’s working and what needs improving in our recycling system. After all, managing our waste responsibly is everyone’s business and every business has to take inventory and make adjustments to be successful.

We can take stock of the environmental and economic benefits of recycling, including saving energy, conserving natural resources, and reducing the need for landfill space. As important, recycling creates jobs, and many of them: according to the Recycling Partnership, over 500,000 direct and indirect jobs contribute to $34 billion in annual wages and benefits.

Communities across Alaska continue their efforts to improve recycling options for both residents and businesses, while adjusting to a challenging market for the materials they collect. We have more recycling operations here than ever before. Anchorage is served by Westrock’s Anchorage Recycling Center for household recyclables, Central Recycling Services for construction and demolition debris recycling, and Total Reclaim for electronics recycling. Metal recycling is also available from several companies. For residents, we have curbside recycling for single-family households through Muni Solid Waste Services or Alaska Waste. Food and green waste composting pilot programs have begun and are growing. The drop-off areas at the Anchorage Recycling Center and the landfill are busy!

Key to our recycling success is Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling’s shipping program, which continues to support Alaska’s recycling system through the contributions of our shippers who move materials to buyers and processors in Seattle. Railbelt communities have free and low-cost recycling thanks to the donations of Matson Navigation Co., TOTE Maritime and Lynden, Inc. Last year, these companies shipped more than 1,000 containers of recyclables weighing more than 25,000 tons. In addition, Lynden Transport, Alaska West Express, Weaver Brothers, United Freight and the Alaska Railroad donate trucking and rail services to move recyclables within the state. Without the ongoing support of all these shipping companies, freight costs would be a barrier to recycling in our state.

In 2018, U.S. recyclers grappled with a worldwide disruption in the marketplace, the likes of which many in the industry have not seen. Beginning in 2017 and continuing through this year, China’s Green Sword action virtually closed the door for U.S. exports of recovered paper and plastics, in part due to high levels of contamination. In 2016, China imported about 30 percent of the materials generated in the nation.

Alaska’s recyclers are feeling the pressure of significantly lower prices and market disruptions. Most programs are still able to take the materials they have in the past, but revenues have fallen, especially for mixed paper and some plastics. Collecting recyclables that are free from contamination is the name of the game to retain their value.

Many in the industry think the China action will eventually be positive for our recycling system. Processors are focused on better sorting and installing new technology that will help clean up the stream. U.S. mills are gearing up to take a wider range of materials, and new mills are being built in the U.S. and Mexico.

Here in Alaska, we are weathering the storm and renewing our efforts to educate the public about what is taken and what is not. The message is more recycling and no “wish cycling.” That’s when one hopes something is recyclable, so they throw it in the bin. Too many times, that material is a contaminant. For example, a plastic bag mistakenly put in curbside carts causes sorting equipment shutdowns, slows processing and raises costs.

It all starts with putting more of the right recyclables in the right place and committing to do so into the future.

Through the simple act of recycling (and buying products made with recycled content), we can continue to build momentum for recycled materials that are used to manufacture new products, giving our garbage another life. That plastic bottle can become a pair of jeans, and that aluminum can becomes a new aluminum can.

As we celebrate Alaska and Anchorage Recycles Day, ALPAR wants to thank you for your efforts to recycle – at home, at work or school, and on the go. Join us in our effort to make Alaska environmentally and economically healthier by recycling more and recycling right. For more information regarding what to what to recycle in Anchorage, go to www.alparalaska.com or https://www.muni.org/Departments/SWS/Recycling/Pages/Default.aspx.

Mary Fisher has served as executive director since 2001 for ALPAR – Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. Founded in 1983, ALPAR is a nonprofit organization supported by Alaskan businesses.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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