In Alaska, known as “The Last Frontier,” curbside recycling is still in its infancy. In early 2008, consultants reported to Anchorage officials that the city was one of the largest in the United States without curbside recycling. Shortly thereafter, Solid Waste Services (SWS), the city's recycling and refuse department, initiated some of the first automated collection of recyclables in the state.
Anchorage residents seeking to recycle have historically driven to recycling drop-off stations. Now, however, more and more of them are demanding convenient curbside collection of recyclables. SWS responded by purchasing three Curbtender automated side loaders (ASLs) from Wayne Engineering, Cedar Falls, Iowa. The trucks are capable of collecting residential recycling and refuse, even in the city's restricted alleyways.
Anchorage currently provides commingled recycling pickup to 3,500 households. This will expand to approximately 13,000 households as the program grows over the next 18 months.
The Role of Local Companies
Previously, recycling in Anchorage consisted of presorted aluminum, cans and newspapers dropped off at grocery stores, the city's landfill or the Smurfit-Stone Recycling Center. Recycled newspapers are purchased by Thermo-Kool, a local company that produces cellulose insulation.
Brian Vanderwood, who handles refuse and recycling collection for SWS, says even with the advent of automated curbside collection, commingled glass is still not an accepted by the municipality or private haulers because when “commingled recyclables are baled for shipment to the lower 48, broken glass can contaminate the other materials and reduce the market value for processors, such as Smurfit-Stone.”
Except for glass, all acceptable recyclables are baled at the Smurfit-Stone Recycling Center and shipped to Washington state, where they are unbaled and sorted. Shipping the recyclables is more economically feasible thanks in large part to an agreement crafted in the 1980s by Anchorage-based Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling (ALPAR) with several major Alaskan shipping companies.
The Municipal Approach
SWS expects Anchorage's recycling program to be fully operational by June 2010. The first phase began in late 2008 with 3,500 households. Each of these households receives a 96-gallon cart for commingled recyclables and at least one additional cart for general refuse.
Along with the new curbside recycling program, Anchorage implemented pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) pricing to encourage residents to throw away less, choose smaller carts for refuse and recycle more. The larger the cart and more frequent the collection, the more the service costs.
For example, a single 48-gallon cart for general household waste collected every two weeks costs around $13 per month. Two 96-gallon carts collected once a week will run slightly more than $60 per month. Participating residents are allowed to change their cart size once at no cost in the first 180 days. This allows residents to have a cart size that meets their specific needs.
SWS decided to order the recyclable carts in pieces and have them assembled locally to reduce shipping costs. This is part of the reason for spacing out the phases of automated collection implementation.
The Collection Challenge
Before automated trucks, older single-operator vehicles needed to be equipped with extra heaters to maintain temperatures in the cab while workers continually got in and out to grab and dump the containers. Before the fully-automated sideloaders, “drivers were manually picking up as much as 30,000 pounds of trash each day, often in cold weather,” says Vanderwood. “Any time you are manually collecting that kind of waste, you run significant risk of injury.”
The Alaskan cold weather only increased the risk of back injury or injury from slipping on snow or ice. Automation did away with the operators lifting heavy cans and let the operators stay in the heated cab.
Since operators weren't leaving the cab as much, extra heaters that used to be needed in manual collections when operators reentered the cab were nixed in the new trucks in favor of a four-camera system and extra-bright LED lights. A right-hand camera allows truck operators to view the cart as it is gripped for dumping. A camera in the hopper lets the operator spot unacceptable recyclables. Two additional cameras add visibility while driving forward or backing up. LED lighting was added to improve safety while backing up and is especially important in this region, where daylight is limited much of the year.
Another unique challenge of collecting recyclables in Anchorage is the number of narrow alleyways lined with resident fencing and with low-hanging wires overhead. These factors weighed heavily into Vanderwood's truck search. He says the Curbtender's collection arm stays close to the truck while tipping, rather than arcing outward where it could cause property damage.
The Future of Recycling in Anchorage
On the frontier of curbside recycling in Alaska, Anchorage's future is clearly automated collection. With the new automated side loaders, the municipality now collects both recycling and refuse in the time it used to take to complete refuse-only routes.
Vanderwood says the municipality was collecting up to 15,000 lbs of recyclables a day within the first month of switching to automated collection. “That's equal to half of our previous daily poundage of refuse collections,” he says. “When you become more efficient with your time using automated trucks, you can now use that saved time to offer other services. That's what we did here with curbside recycling.”
Jackie Couillard is an industry consultant with Pyramid Creative Group Kaukauna, Wisc.