Justin & I have collectively lived in 14 states, and every state—heck, every town—has a different system for trash collection and recycling. So I’m not surprised that moving to a small town in the woods means there’s no Trash Day or Curbside Trash Pick Up, let alone recycling. I thought #plasticfreejuly would be an opportune time to break down the idiosyncrasies of remote life as it pertains to garbage and recycling. I definitely nerd out on waste stats, but I’m not offended if you stop reading here!
So first thing first, garbage. Denali Borough (which includes Healy) has a transfer station for trash drop-off ($2 per bag). You can arrange to have a dumpster or garbage pickup through Alaska Waste, but we haven’t gotten to that point. Justin & I personally don’t create a lot of trash. We separate our smelliest trash to store in our full-size freezer. I know it’s strange, but we haven’t figured out a compost system (a whole other Alaska conundrum) and can get by with creating less than one full bag every month or so. Owning an Airbnb has created an influx in trash, but I’ll get to that point later in the post. The borough transfer station for trash drop-off is about 8 miles north of where we live, but has limited hours, so honestly, we mostly wait until we are going up to Fairbanks, as there is a 24-hour transfer station for trash drop-off in Ester on the way.
You might remember that we’ve worked for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics as the Zero Landfill Team from 2018-2020, and Denali National Park and Preserve (our backyard) is attempting to become zero landfill. The park increased its waste diversion rate from 15 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2019. Of course Covid effed up progress, but I sit in on the quarterly Zero Landfill Project calls, and there are still ongoing efforts! The main thing I want to convey is that as a visitor to Denali National Park, trash is an important issue. While residents rely on our local landfill, trash from the park travels more than 200 miles south to a different landfill!!
I’ve always been a recycling nut, but I understand that there are always two sides to the coin. People can definitely argue that recycling is counterintuitive and costs more and blah blah blah. This is why we try our best to focus on the first R – REDUCE! I’ll stick to my opinion that recycling makes sense (#dontfeedthelandfills), mainly because the landfills have a lifespan and degrade the land. As I said, owning and operating an Airbnb has put me in a pickle with an increasing trash load. We try to educate our guests about the area’s challenges for trash and recycling, but we understand it is hard to reduce as a travelers and try to pass no judgement.
Recycling is complicated and takes work everywhere, but particularly in our remote area. Justin rolls his eyes with all my efforts to recycle. Not only do we NOT have curbside pickup, but there are multiple location drop-offs and a good portion of our shed space is dedicated to our recycling collection much to his chagrin.
We typically haul our recycling to Fairbanks, nearly 2 hours north (one more reason we love having a truck bed). I know that sounds crazy, but their recycling center accepts the most at once (aluminum, plastics #1 & 2, corrugated cardboard and mixed paper/non-corrugated cardboard), and we just make it part of our Fairbanks errands. With that being said, they closed temporarily starting July 1 because they were unable to agree on contracts (most people don’t realize recycling IS a business). I am trying not to be a pessimist, but they are seeking a new recycling operator, and will likely not be open for at least three months.
Luckily for us, our borough’s transfer station started accepting some recycling seasonally (plastics #1, aluminum cans, corrugated cardboard and batteries) beginning in 2021, but the trailer often fills up and the hours are limited. This is only through October, so I sure hope Fairbanks figures out next steps by then.
There is another transfer station about 30 miles south of us which accepts more recycling year-round (plastics #1, 2, 5, aluminum & tin cans, corrugated cardboard, mixed paper and batteries), but their hours are even more limited and we often aren’t driving that far south unless we go to Anchorage (which is never basically). Fun fact: hardly any recycling programs in Alaska accept glass because it is too heavy for hauling and most of our recycling is eventually shipped to processing facilities outside the state. In some places, glass is crushed and used as pavement, like at the Denali National Park Train Depot!
Justin calls me obsessed, but we also participate in three (maybe more?) Terracycle programs in which we collect and recycle specialty items, including our chip bags/granola/candy wrappers, toothpaste/deodorant containers and dehydrated food pouches.
Anyway, if you made it this far, I hope you appreciate where you live, how easy it is to throw out garbage and what you can recycle. This is one of the tradeoffs to life in Alaska. I’m getting off my soapbox now!