The story of Anchorage’s trash is surprisingly compelling

Most of us don’t know what Anchorage’s municipal Solid Waste Services, or SWS, does — what happens with trash is an unsexy part of life. We put trash out in a bin or a dumpster and it disappears. We might find ourselves at the transfer station to drop off a load when we’re spring cleaning or moving. Or we rent a dumpster during a remodeling project. But what happens next?

I’ve learned about “the rest of the story” over the past six years serving on the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Commission, or SWRAC, a volunteer advisory group that reviews and makes recommendations on the work of SWS. When I joined the SWRAC, SWS manager Mark Spafford showed me a copy of the utility’s then-current long-term plan: It was published before I was born, and about as relevant as my kindergarten homework.

Since then, Spafford and his team have worked day in and day out to tune up SWS so it runs safely, efficiently, and sustainably. They overhauled safety culture at the organization to bring down costs associated with accidents on the job, crafted a long-term financial plan to keep the agency in the black, broke ground on a safer and more customer-friendly Central Transfer Station, and are hell-bent on saving Southcentral Alaskans the headache and cost of finding a new landfill when space at our legacy Anchorage Regional Landfill eventually runs out.

Spafford swears by what he calls a “landfill doomsday clock,” a tool he uses to mark the time when our local landfill will have to be retired if it continues to fill at its current rate. With no suitable alternatives for a new landfill in the Anchorage bowl, finding a new location for the facility promises to be a costly, complex and fraught undertaking.

Sorting recyclables, separating compostable waste like yard trimmings and food scraps, and encouraging people to reduce and reuse their consumer products are the first steps. But what about all the things that we can’t divert from the landfill? Sometimes trash is just … trash.

One solution stands out as a way to create local jobs, generate renewable energy, reduce the prevalence of toxins in the environment and extend the life of Anchorage Regional Landfill by more than 100 years. SWS is looking at options to expand the ways in which we turn waste into energy. Currently, we convert landfill gas into power for facilities on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. But there is so much more we can do with novel and innovative technologies to sort, process and convert our waste streams. As I’m often reminded, SWS is funded by fees — not by taxes. With a sustainable fiscal plan in place, and ways to keep our landfill open for business, the utility is now on steady footing for the next 100 years. I look forward to working with the Bronson administration to keep things on the right track.

Clare Bryant Boersma is a lifelong Anchorage resident, homeowner, compost-enthusiast and member of the Anchorage Municipal Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Commission.

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.