Rural Alaska

Kivalina project would turn waste into much-needed fuel

In the next year or so, Kivalina residents might get to say farewell to the honey bucket.

Earlier this month, two organizations, Re-Locate and the Climate Foundation, were awarded an $85,000 grant through the Commission for Environmental Cooperation to work with tribal and municipal governments in the community to revamp the village's sanitation system.

The venture would provide biochar sanitation, which turns human waste into a sustainable energy source, and would give residents the opportunity to do away with honey buckets if they choose.

Both tribal and city officials are helping with the design of the undertaking, which would include a waste management procedure, waterless toilets, and a biochar reactor that would convert human waste into biochar -- a porous charcoal.

The project is very exciting, said Re-Locate's founder and chief curator Michael Gerace.

The idea has been in the works for nearly two years and when complete, the project should improve public health dramatically by removing the threat of infection and disease from untreated sewage and solid waste.

New projects, upgrades and improvements to current infrastructure are hard to come by these days in Kivalina, which each year loses more of its coastline to erosion.


Warm weather that hit the state this fall meant open water on the Chukchi Sea, leaving the Northwest Alaska community even more vulnerable. For years now, the village has been exposed due to open water lingering later and later as storm surges pushed waves into the beaches. The community needs to move to higher ground, and with that massive undertaking being the focus, issues that otherwise should take priority get overlooked.

This project is one step in making the lives of community members better and more comfortable while they plan relocation.

"We still want the very thing everyone enjoys; a cleaner and healthier environment inside our homes," said city administrator Janet Mitchell. "Everyone wants flush toilets like the rest of the world and I'm no different.

"I can say 'about time' because this is one of the things we are always bringing up to whomever may be able to assist us. But relocation has always been the reason for lack of assistance from anyone. That didn't cut it with us for many reasons, the most common being that relocation won't happen overnight."

The process of turning waste into energy has been done before, but not in Arctic Alaska. The Climate Foundation will take care of modifying the technique to suit the climate in the Arctic Northwest.

The result is a charcoal-based briquette that can be burned, or used as energy or fertilizer and to filter toxic chemicals, said Gerace.

"Local relationships, roles, and responsibilities are critical to understand, visualize, and integrate into the design of any new waste management plan," said Gerace.

This undertaking is a necessity and a matter of public health, Gerace said. It's not about criticizing governments or undermining any work that's been done. "We're providing new options where there are deficiencies in Kivalina," he said.

Biochar is free of biological pathogens and may help reduce the rates of communicable disease in villages using honey buckets, said Gerace in a release.

A winner of the Gates Foundation dry toilet challenge, the Climate Foundation will work with Kivalina leaders and Re-Locate to apply its success at developing innovative waste management technology around the world to benefit Kivalina and other Arctic communities.

"Biochar reactors require no underground pipes, generate their own energy as a byproduct, and are easily transportable by shipping container to possible future village sites being planned in response to the impacts of climate change on Kivalina," said Dr. Brian von Herzen, physicist, inventor, and founder of the Climate Foundation in a release.

Work will continue on this project along with Relocate's effort to support moving the village to a safer spot.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.