How Juneau Handles Its Garbage

Alaska's capital city is surrounded by ocean and glaciers, with no roads in or out. Waste management? It's complicated.
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Downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Photo: Kristin Harvey/Flickr)

Downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Photo: Kristin Harvey/Flickr)

Having worked 35 years in waste management, Jim Penor has seen a lot of garbage. And with six of those years spent serving as the solid waste coordinator for the City and Borough of Juneau—the only state capital not accessible by road—Penor's faced some pretty unique garbage challenges.

"Everything's difficult," he says with a wry laugh. Anything that leaves the city has to be barged south, and anything that stays—well, a home has to be found for it.

Like most of the small communities in the Alaska Panhandle (known to locals as "Southeast"), Juneau is reachable only by boat or by plane. It's wedged in between a mountainous glacial ice field—somewhere up there, you'll find the unmarked border with British Columbia—and the maze of rainy islands and channels that make up the Inside Passage. That means it's not a city surrounded by limitless acres of unused space, a fact that results in some unusual municipal dilemmas. Beyond changing the demands of the local craft-beer business, it also affects a critical service: waste management.

"I like waste. I like it, and I know it very, very well."

Penor, who laughs often and whose enthusiasm for effective waste management is genuinely infectious, deals with two main waste streams: garbage (formally known as solid waste), and recyclables. Unlike some of Southeast's other major towns, where all waste is shipped to Washington by barge, Juneau keeps its solid waste close to home. The city has one landfill, privately owned by the international titan Waste Management. Another private company, Arrow Refuse, holds a state-issued Certificate of Convenience and Necessity that licenses it for curbside collection. So Arrow Refuse picks up the garbage, and Waste Management landfills it.

On the recycling side, the city works with Waste Management to run a depot where residents can deliver their sorted recyclables. From there, the glass, tin, plastic, and paper items are collected into bales and transferred to barges headed south, to the ports in Seattle and Tacoma, and then onto trucks to recycling facilities in Washington state. (Alternatively, people can pay to opt in to a curbside recycling program run by Arrow Refuse, the garbage collection contractor. Penor estimates that his facility handles around 2,400 tons of recyclables each year, while the curbside program takes in 700 tons.) The exact destination can vary: "I'm always shopping around to get the best price out of our recycled stuff."

This is all very costly. When I ask him if his program breaks even, he laughs again: "Oh, heck no."

"They can't even break even down south where they can truck it to the facilities, and we have to ship it," he says. "Commodities pricing for recyclable material is very volatile. Very. Right now it's the worst I've seen it in 15 years." When prices are higher, that can help offset costs, but the program is never going to be a moneymaker. Juneau spends $240,000 per year on its recycling.

Since Penor's arrival in Juneau six years ago, he's worked to improve the city's waste management, and to maximize efficiency. And the results have been promising. He's doubled the amount of recyclables arriving at the depot annually, from 1,200 to 2,400 tons, meaning he's taken more than 1,000 tons out of the landfill each year. And he hopes to keep improving on that front: Juneau still puts 32,000 tons of waste in its landfill each year, 21,000 of which comes from households and small businesses. Plenty of that material is actually recyclable.

Meanwhile, he's also made improvements to Juneau's systems for handling hazardous waste. He added a latex paint giveaway program: Still-usable opened cans of paint are up for grabs to anyone who can use them, and for the unusable paint, Penor's team adds a solidifier to the cans, transforming them so that they meet the criteria to be landfilled. "So we no longer ship paint," he explains; Penor has cut the cost of dealing with unused paint down from $75,000 to $12,000. He's also moved 15,000 gallons of spent motor oil and other industrial oils into a recycling program, in partnership with a local petroleum company.

His biggest move, though, might be the purchase of a new baler for the recycling facility. The old baler, he says, was "breaking at the seams" as he doubled the city's intake of recyclables. It was built to handle 1,400 tons a year, and it had become the limiting factor in the continued expansion of the program. This past September, he had a new one ordered and installed, and he's clearly still excited about it. The new WB 721 can create a bale in 15 minutes, he explains, while the old unit could take up to 40 minutes. "I'm proud to say it's American-manufactured," Penor says. "It's one of the biggest, best, fastest balers you can buy on the market."

The new baler also has the option to package garbage for barging, not just recyclables—something that may become necessary when Juneau's landfill reaches its capacity. And it produces bales at standard export size, giving Penor more shipping options for his recyclables: "My bales are 60-inch, which I can export right to China at Prince Rupert," a Canadian port just south of the Panhandle—much closer than Seattle.

Juneau's geography dictates that waste management will never be an easy problem to ignore. It's not a place where trash can just pile up in landfill after landfill indefinitely, as it might in other parts of the world. And the city still has a long way to go in minimizing the waste it ships south every year. But it's comforting to know that the problem is in the hands of a keener like Jim Penor. "I like waste," he says. "I like it, and I know it very, very well."

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Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.

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