James Terranova noticed a few things almost immediately when he arrived in Atqasuk a couple weeks ago to take a teaching position at Meade River School.
He saw how beautiful the landscape was around the North Slope community, and how kind and welcoming the locals were. He also noticed the rusty, graffiti-riddled dumpsters and mountains of pop cans at every turn. It struck him as curious that such a beautiful place had such eyesores around town. And so he got to work. First, painting the dumpsters and then organizing an aluminum-can recycling strategy.
Soon after he began giving the unsightly dumpsters a facelift, he said, a group of local kids, from elementary school-aged to high schoolers, were following him around, wanting to pitch in and help.
"I was absolutely blown away by the desire of these kids to participate and help," Terranova said last week. "That just fueled my desire to do more. I was mobbed by 4- and 5-year-olds all the way up to 14-year-olds who wanted to help. They were fighting over the roller because they wanted to paint. They were so happy to help."
It was while he and the students were scraping, cleaning, priming and painting the dumpsters that Terranova noticed all the cans. (He has since been getting requests for specific motifs on the various dumpsters around town. He decided to paint some with the Inupiaq values stenciled on in the Inupiaq language.)
"When I was working on painting the dumpsters, I looked inside and there were aluminum cans everywhere and all over the ground," he said. "We got eight five-gallon buckets full of cans out just from underneath the stairs of the school. My biggest question was simply, 'Why are there cans all over the ground?' Everyone can see the need for (recycling), it's just no one had actually started it. Quite frankly, I think it's long overdue."
He started to see cans everywhere he went and so he looked into what it would take to recycle them.
It turns out, not too much, with enough help and support from locals. The students involved in the effort are mostly juniors with one freshman on board. Community members big and small were enthusiastic about the idea, he said. Support from the North Slope Borough School District and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope has also been encouraging.
The recycling project, called Eagle Recycling, came to life in August with the first box of crushed cans sent out.
Together with his students, Terranova found some old garbage cans not in use and set them up around town and in the school for cans only. He called a recycling facility in Fairbanks, and secured some storage spots to hold the recyclables until they are shipped off.
"That's how we started the first week of school," he laughed. "Sustainability all the way."
Only one student questioned the recycling project, Terranova said, adding that he explained that in a wet environment, a can takes between 80 to 100 years to break down, with the process taking much longer on the tundra.
The next math problem he and his students figured out was how many soda cans are emptied each week, and subsequently each year, in the remote community. They took the average and multiplied that by the number of residents. The estimated number of pop cans thrown out in Atqasuk is around 80,000 cans annually, Terranova said.
They also figured out the amount of money they could get back by recycling all those cans.
"The bigger issue is keeping the community clean," he said. "It's really not about being profitable, it's about community service."
The cans are being shipped by mail, in boxes that would have otherwise been thrown out, and sent to K&K Recycling in Fairbanks. The first box with over 400 cans went out this week.
Other options like hauling the cans out by snowmachine and charter plane were considered, but mailing them was the most feasible option.
For now, Terranova is paying the postage out of his own pocket and K&K will send a check when they receive and sort the recyclables, he said.
The money earned will go back to the students, most likely through a field trip in the spring. And whatever money is garnered from the recycling, Terranova and the other teachers at Meade River will match, dollar for dollar.
Several of Terranova's students have expressed interest in going to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and so he hopes to use the money from the can recycling to take a trip there so students can tour the campus in the spring.
"It all ties into the college readiness (program). If you can put community service like this on your resume, that's going to help with potential scholarships," he said. "I've got some very bright students that are college bound, and community service is a big deal when it comes to applying. Most of my kids have taken to it really well. Everybody is working together really well."
A region-wide recycling campaign is next on Terranova's agenda if all goes well locally.
"It can't go on like this for 50 or 100 more years," he said.
"If you want to keep the land clean, you've got to have a sustainability plan."
This story originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and has been republished with permission.