Like most things in Alaska, recycling has challenges other states don’t face. In fact, the only way recycling is economically feasible in Alaska communities large and small is for businesses and people to donate their time, money and resources.
“The little-known fact for most people is that recycling is possible in Alaska through the generosity of private companies,” explains Anita Nelson, executive director of the nonprofit Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling (ALPAR).
Recycling is the simple notion that we can get a second use out of so-called trash. But here in Alaska, this noble idea runs up against a hard reality: distance. Approximately 82% of the state’s communities are not connected to the road system, and Alaska itself is thousands of miles away from the nearest recycling processor in Tacoma. So how can recycling companies afford to collect and ship our cans, cardboard, bottles and other single-use stuff to where they can be repurposed? Teamwork.
“Our state is so big and diverse that a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work,” explains Anita. “It’s not possible to have the same expectation for a community that doesn’t have shipping, road or rail system to match that of a community with all those amenities.”
What ALPAR does is coordinate businesses that have the opportunity and resources to help. Some of these companies make monetary contributions. Others offer free use of their business operations.
Here’s how it all works. In rural communities across the state, ALPAR pays the market rate for aluminum cans, with the income most often dedicated to rural youth programs managed by tribal entities. Small airlines then fly the recyclables out.
Road and rail-transportation companies bring the recyclables to Anchorage. And ocean-shipping companies Matson, TOTE Maritime and Lynden provide in-kind donations to transport the recyclables to Tacoma.
“The first year our team shipped recycling out of Alaska was in the early 1980s,” says Matson Gatehouse and Equipment Control Manager Lee Fisher. “Matson now ships hundreds of ALPAR containers south each year free of charge.”
“ALPAR is a legacy of Alaska leaders including members of our team, who 40 years ago had a progressive vision to protect the great state we all love. Matson is honored to be able to play a role in that,” says Fisher, who has served on the ALPAR board for five years.
All this cooperation across the state is arranged by Anita Nelson. “I am the only employee,” she says. “We rely on these businesses that are supporting this endeavor. It’s all of their employees, it’s all of their staff, it’s all of their logistics folks who make this happen. We really value all of that effort that’s being put out there by private entities.”
Founded in 1982 by private companies, ALPAR is overseen by a board of directors comprised of 18 business leaders who volunteer their time and whose companies are ALPAR’s primary sponsors.
Recycling is not purely altruistic. It’s profitable for companies in the middle that take raw trash and process it into materials that are purchased by other companies that turn it into other things. ALPAR, however, does not sell Alaska’s recyclables. Rather, ALPAR turns it all over to recycling centers in Anchorage and Fairbanks and, in return, receives a small percentage of the profits those centers earn.
Then ALPAR turns that money right back around and puts it into Alaska. In a normal, non-COVID year, ALPAR funds recycling and litter pick-up programs in about 80 communities throughout the state. Just in Anchorage, ALPAR sponsors Adopt-A-Bike Path, Can-Do Kids and Christmas tree recycling.
In rural Alaska, it sponsors the Flying Cans program; and statewide, it sponsors Youth Litter Patrol and volunteer community pick-ups. Since 1990, ALPAR has given away over 2 million bags to 160 communities to help clean up Alaska.
In rural communities, the money goes to Youth Litter Patrols, which are made up of teenagers paid hourly or by the bag to pick up litter. In many rural communities, it is the only paying job available to a young person during summer months.
“We feel it’s a great way to inspire the next generation,” Anita says, “to prevent litter and to respect the land.”
If you live here, there’s a reason you live here,” Anita says, “and part of it is our access to wilderness and our pristine landscape. When I travel and talk to people who in live in other places, it’s evident that we have a gift – that gift deserves our respect by doing what we can to keep it as we found it.”
That’s the job of ALPAR – keeping Alaska clean.