Jason Esler removes his cap, wipes his brow and surveys the fresh mound of potato peels, watermelon rinds, crushed zucchini, tomatoes and other various food scraps he's just dumped into a hole.
The stocky blonde with two shaggy shoulder-length braids takes a minute to catch his breath, look down from the heap with a satisfied smile and yell, "Delicious, right?" before grabbing another full bag and dumping its contents.
Thirty-four-year-old Elser, owner of Alaska Homestead Services—the first garbage and recycling company operating in McCarthy, Alaska—has spent the better half of the day hauling 800 gallons of compost in 55-gallon, bear-proof drums down the potholed 75-mile stretch of dusty road between McCarthy and Kenny Lake. The compost's destination is 320-acre Rustic Roots Farm in Kenny Lake.
His fledgling company has seen a tumultuous first couple years. This is the last month running compost for the handful of restaurants, bed and breakfasts and lodges in McCarthy and neighboring Kennecott before seasonal workers and tourists perform their yearly disappearing act and the 50-ish permanent residents get serious about hunkering down for winter.
Starting a garbage and recycling company on the edge of civilization has been challenging. McCarthy is tucked into the base of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country's largest national park, spanning 13.2 million acres of wilderness. Limited access to McCarthy and Kennecott—there is one foot bridge and one vehicle bridge—is a significant hurdle when your business is hauling garbage by the drum-full. And in a town where new ideas are often met with a raised brow and skepticism, Esler's faced public perception obstacles as a first-time business owner.
"I didn't want to see a landfill here," Esler said matter-of-factly. "I love McCarthy and I want to be a part of this community and do cool things for my community. I want to be the type of community leader who is solutions-oriented and thinks locally."
Esler's lived in and out of Alaska for the last 15 years, but has always called McCarthy home. He recently bought property, opened an eatery called the Slow Down Cafe and has been watching tourism grow steadily each summer.
As traffic increases and businesses grow, so does the waste. Esler wasn't the only community member who realized McCarthy and Kennecott had a garbage problem, but he was the only one who felt there was another option besides a landfill. The idea of one makes him shudder.
"No way! We don't have to do that!" he said. "I don't want to have my kids deal with landfill issues like we see all over in Alaska."
McCarthy and Kennecott's "pack-it-in-pack-it-out" model is, Esler thinks, a backcountry philosophy that is no longer feasible for the two front-country towns.
"You've got people coming to visit this area—and it's more and more every summer. It's not going to slow down," said Esler. "Something needed to happen and the landfill was option A and I offered option B, and a bunch of people took it—pretty much all the restaurants."
Esler's option B solution is a composting and recycling system based off of the core values of permaculture. He's modeled his system after Hugelkultur composting, a technique used in parts of northern Germany that replicates the natural decomposition process. The system uses raised beds or mounds filled with decaying wood, wood chips and other decomposable plant materials mixed with compostable items like kitchen scraps.
His system breaks down into 11 categories: plastics one-with a dimple, plastics two-with a seam, plastics five (any of them), tin cans, aluminum cans, glass, corrugated cardboard, paperboard, stretchy plastic, compost and trash. Next summer, he plans to add even more categories.
So where does it all go? This year, he collects everything from his clients, separating compostable materials and recyclables. The compost goes into the 55-gallon bear-proof drums that eventually get hauled to the Kenny Lake farm. The recyclable materials are staged on Esler's property in McCarthy until he transports them 250 miles to Valley Community Recycling Solutions in Palmer. The trash also gets hauled to Palmer.
Last summer, he was burying the compost he collected from his clients in four-foot pits lined with cardboard, mixing a three-to-one ratio of compost to carbon, covering the hole completely with sawdust and woodchips before adding large brush and trees and then covering the entire hole with two feet of soil. He was also feeding compost to several pigs—all on his property in McCarthy—which is what got him into trouble.
The town has always struggled with bears, but Esler's methods seemed to attract even more.
He admits there were bear issues the first year. Concerned residents took it up with the McCarthy Area Council (MAC) to investigate. Some even took it a step further, calling state agencies and the state troopers to try and get Esler's operation shut down.
Steven Harper and his wife have lived in McCarthy for 17 years and although he's been supportive of Esler's business—they recognize the need for a garbage service—he said in this case, the "devil's in the details." He feels Esler missed a few of those important details when it came to bear safety, having the right equipment, space and infrastructure to take on the garbage and recycling from two communities.
"We're experiencing growing pains," Harper said. "We don't have a dump site like many other villages do. There's more garbage than there used to be and we need a well-managed, viable garbage service."
He said at one point McCarthy tried to employ Copper Basin Sanitation Service Company to deal with the town's garbage and recycling, but the company, located in Glenallen, was just too far away.
Harper doesn't just blame Esler for attracting bears—that's on other residents, too. "It just boils down to, either you do it right, or you don't," said Harper. "There's an individual responsibility to keeping your garbage. If your dog can get it, a bear can get it. If an animal has gotten something tasty out of a garbage bag before, then they're going to come back."
To avoid further conflicts with McCarthy residents, Esler dug up all of his compost and hauled it 75 miles down the road to Kenny Lake.
"Year one, I had no idea what I was getting into—no idea—no one had done this before," he said. "So, I was gonna fail at some things."
From year one to year two, Esler's changed his methods quite a bit. Now he feels most people are supportive and encouraging of his business—especially the restaurants and lodges. Even with a bumpy start, by the end of the 2015 season, Esler said he had recycled 32,000 aluminum cans, diverted 20 cubic yards of cardboard from going into the landfill in Palmer and removed 20,000 pounds of trash.
"When I told people that the pop can total from last year was 32,000—that's a number that for my customers and for my non-customers—was like a holy shit moment," Esler said grinning.
"He's doing a great job and we couldn't be happier," said Malcolm Vance, a co-owner of The Roadside Potatohead in McCarthy. "It's a lot of work to make this happen."
This fall Esler plans to start clearing and building an access road to a new lot, permitted by the Department of Natural Resources. That transfer site will be ready to go for the 2017 summer season. It will eliminate his 75-mile drive to the Kenny Lake Farm and give him the needed space to compost and sort closer to home—although that's subject to change.
"Permaculture is the basis for this whole thing," Esler said. "It's more than just coming in and scratching the earth a whole bunch and getting it set up really quick."
With bear problems handled, he hit a new, literal roadblock just a few weeks before the summer season officially ended: his bridge pass was pulled.
The one and only vehicle bridge in McCarthy is owned by the Rowland family, Esler's neighbors. Keith Rowland pulled Esler's bridge pass over what he describes as a miscommunication. News of Esler's bridge pass troubles spread like wildfire during Labor Day weekend.
In the end, Esler adapted; for now he's using four-wheelers instead of a vehicle to run his operation.
And that's Esler's business philosophy: find new solutions to a problem. He knows McCarthy isn't the only rural town that has garbage and recycling issues, but his hope is that if he can get his business off and running he can show the rest of the state that a sustainable, good-for-the-earth garbage and recycling system is possible—even in Alaska. He sees himself as a leader and hopes that the Alaska he calls home will still be the beautiful, pristine wilderness he's come to know and love for his kids' kids, too.
This article was first published in 61°North – The Food Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at email@example.com