Talking Trash: Isolated Gustavus deals with national park-sized garbage problem

Gustavus’s Disposal and Recycling Center manager Paul Berry stands atop bales of municipal solid waste buried at the city’s landfill site. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

Operating a landfill off the road system in Southeast Alaska has its own challenges.

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But what if the community is next to a national park that gets thousands of visitors each summer? That’s the lay of the land in tiny Gustavus.

In this town, there’s a joke that nothing’s ever free. Because even if someone gives you something, you’ll eventually have to pay to throw it away or recycle it at the city-run landfill.

“I marvel at it, that someone will spend $0.60 a pound to recycle their TV,” Paul Berry said. Berry is the main architect of the city’s Disposal & Recycling Center. We’ll hear more from him in a minute.

Because one of the main challenges here comes from Glacier Bay National Park. A half-million people visit the park each year, most by cruise ship. But those flying or ferrying in leave behind what they don’t want or need. For decades the National Park Service had its own dump but then the inevitable happened. Mark Ortega is the park’s utilities supervisor.

“We basically ran out of room, footprint-wise,” Ortega said.

The Park Service turned to the city of Gustavus, which is small, with less than 500 year-round residents.

The park service pays the city to take its waste – but first it’s meticulously sorted. That’s national park maintenance worker Dan Grivois’s job.

“We typically get around anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds of trash every day,” Grivois said. “My job is basically to get the biggest diversion rate out of that as I can.”

To cut down on space – and expense –  the park burns its waste in a towering incinerator.

Internal temperatures reach a biblical 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The remaining white ash is delivered to the city’s Disposal and Recycling Center.

Manager Paul Berry is proud of the operation.

“Food waste composting and 60 to 70 percent of your material coming in that building being recycled one way or another,” Berry said. “I mean that’s Seattle and San Francisco standards. That’s not something you’d typically see in rural Alaska.”

There are more than a dozen bins for sorting recycling, each number of plastic, cardboard, appliances, metals – even dirty diapers — have their place.

Yet aside from the faint smell of mulch from the compost heap, there’s almost no odor.

Glacier Bay National Park utilities supervisor Mark Ortega walks past a row of recycling bins on Sept. 5 near the National Park Service’s visitors center at Bartlett Cover (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

“You have a food waste composting operation and an active landfill and there are no resident seagulls, there are no resident ravens,” Berry said. “We haven’t had a bear inside the facility since 2001 and that was the year we put up the electric fence.”

It wasn’t always like this.

Berry recalls his first visit in the early 1980s. It was a different scene. Imagine a shallow pit filled with household waste and diesel fuel.

“If it wasn’t already burning or smoldering you would light it and leave,” Berry said. “You know, there was some salvage. I remember seeing a TV set there. But it was pretty bad and my impression at that time was … yuck.”

The state owned it back then.

When the federal EPA tightened up landfill regulations, the community had to clean up its act.

The city incorporated in 2004 and one of the first things it did was take over the dump.

The city soon realized that if things didn’t change, the landfill would fill up in a few years.

And there aren’t exactly other sites.

“You see, Gustavus is surrounded by national park wilderness,” Berry said. “You can’t go out of town like you usually do in a lot of communities and start a new facility on state land somewhere. It just ain’t there.”

Gustavus is remote. It only got state ferry service in 2010.

Yet it gets about 20,000 annual visitors who stay at lodges and step off tour boats.

To stay on top of this influx, it aggressively recycles. About 40 tons are shipped annually to Seattle.

It raises as much money from the recycling as it can. Still, that’s only 4 percent of the operation’s income. Because back to the joke – everything costs money to dump or recycle here.

Well, almost everything.

They’ll take aluminum cans. But what most people in the country drop off for free – such as plastic water bottles and cardboard – in Gustavus they’re charged 19 cents a pound — even more if it’s unsorted.

“We are funding it by charging people to recycle, which strikes some people as like, ‘What?!’” Berry said.

National Park Service maintenance worker Dan Grivois loads the park’s waste incinerator on Sept. 5. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

That’s the secret to Gustavus’s success, Berry said. Community buy-in. So how could other places replicate this?

Berry says it takes three things.

“You have to have an individual who is willing to do it,” Berry said. He’s talking about himself.

“You have to have a small group of people with influence in the community to support that individual,” Berry continued.

That would be Gustavus’s grassroots landfill committee that began organizing in the 1990s.

“And then finally, you have to have a community that’s willing to do it,” Berry said.

Despite the high recycling rate, this landfill will likely be out of space in four to eight years.

With few choices for a new site and little room to expand, Gustavus will probably start barging its solid waste to a landfill in the Lower 48.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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