A large increase in trash shipping costs in Southeast Alaska has leaders exploring solutions

A woman in a bright neon hoodie operates a trash truck's mechanical arm, to pick up a recycling bin
Kelly Davis has been driving trash trucks in Petersburg for almost a year. The borough hopes to recycle and compost more to bring down costs. (Hannah Flor/KFSK)

Kelly Davis has been a trash truck driver in Petersburg for less than a year but she already has lots of stories about the things she sees in garbage cans. On a recent trip down bumpy Noseeum Street, she described one surprise.  

“I opened it up, it was a dead chicken,” she said. “I shut the lid. I was with Mikey and I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s a dead chicken!’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah it happens,’ and I’m like, ‘God, gross!’” 

That chicken is just a tiny portion of the millions of pounds of garbage that Petersburg residents get rid of each year. The borough just signed a trash disposal contract that’s 34% more expensive than the last one and now they’re hoping to find ways to lower costs for customers in the remote town with already sky-high living expenses. 

But trash disposal in Southeast Alaska is expensive. And complicated. Because it’s an archipelago, towns can’t just truck their garbage down the highway to a shared landfill. A lot of municipalities compress their trash into giant blocks called “bales” and barge it down to the Lower 48. Chris Cotta, Director of Public Works in Petersburg, said shipping prices are the biggest sanitation challenge across the region.

The increased cost of Petersburg’s new waste disposal contract won’t be passed on to residents this year. But higher costs will eventually mean higher prices for customers and one of the easiest solutions is simply throwing away less. 

Cotta estimated that nearly half of baled trash could be composted or recycled.

“It’s safe to say a really significant portion of what goes into the garbage can could be diverted in some fashion,” he said. “Either converted to compost, or put into a recycling stream and reused as something else.” 

The local tribe, the Petersburg Indian Association, already has a small composting program. Cotta is working with the tribe to look into the possibility of expanding the program for the whole community. 

But Cotta and others are also exploring region-wide solutions. Over a decade ago, eight municipalities in Southeast banded together to look at possibilities. Cotta is acting chair of the group, called the Southeast Alaska Solid Waste Authority, or SEASWA. He said while Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan are not yet members of SEASWA, he hopes they’ll join eventually. 

“If we could get some of the larger communities to join up and be part of SEASWA, I do think we’d have a lot more bargaining power,” he said.

Cotta said that if most communities in Southeast joined SEASWA, together they may be able to bring down the price of future contracts with shipping companies. 

They’re interested in exploring other ideas as well. When SEASWA looked at solutions about a decade ago, they found baling and shipping garbage south to be the most effective solution. That’s why many communities moved to that model but Cotta said increased shipping costs have changed that calculation. 

He’s also curious whether new technologies could be part of a solution.

In Petersburg, the coming price increase for most customers will only be the equivalent of a few cups of coffee each month. That might not seem like a lot. But Cotta is concerned. He said if garbage prices go up too much, some customers just won’t pay. 

“We end up with a situation where garbage is being tossed in the woods or collecting on properties, because people can’t afford to get rid of it,” Cotta said. 

And for organizations that produce a lot more trash than the average household in Petersburg, the cost really adds up. The increase to garbage costs at the Petersburg School District would be a lot more than a few coffees. Shannon Baird is the Director of Finance at the District. She  calculated the potential increase over a school year. 

“We were estimating maybe $15,000,” Baird said. “That’s $15,000 that we don’t have to put into other things like student activities, and school supplies.” 

SEASWA plans to apply for funding to conduct study this fall. They hope it will help determine the best path forward for Southeast Alaska. 

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