Recycling program reveals where all the garbage goes

This is the first story in a three-part series on UAA’s recycling program, the men and women who work to keep it running, and the outside companies that transfer recyclables off campus and out of state.

Matt Lewis and Eric Snyder get up early every Friday morning and come to campus with one goal: to recycle as much as they can from 29 university buildings in eight hours.

On an average Friday, these two students and several volunteers gather more than 2,400 pounds of recyclables from about 10 buildings. On good days, they said they could collect more than 3,000 pounds of paper and cardboard. That’s equal to nearly three milk cows.

“We pick it up and take it out to the dumpsters over behind the Arts Building behind the green compound, and then Alaska Waste Management takes it,” said Lewis, a junior majoring in social work with a minor in psychology, as he pulled open doors to grab supplies for what he called the day’s recycling run.

He and Snyder, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, gathered up about 100 cornflower-blue bags and a four-foot-long cart from a dark, dusty room in the bottom of the Student Union. Dodging pingpong tables, they wedged their way onto the elevator and headed off to Rasmuson Hall, where they would collect more than 200 pounds of paper.

The problem with this process is that the trash bins are constantly overflowing, and they aren’t even able to get half of what the university puts in its recycling bins every week, Lewis said. Other problems the recycling program has dealt with this semester include a transfer from student government’s previous administration to Campus Life’s administration.

During the transfer, weeks went by when Lewis and Snyder couldn’t do pickups because of administrative confusion over who was paying for the recycling program, they said.

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“But it’s not like the end is near,” Snyder said. “There’s enough grant money to pay us through the end of the semester without going into student funds.”

Their pickup orders change on some Fridays, Snyder said. This Friday’s orders were to gather paper and cardboard. In October, they waited and tried to write grants for additional funding but never got orders from university administrators to bring on four additional recyclers who could bring enough manpower to help UAA recycle more, including products like plastic and aluminum.

Recyclable solids like glass, plastic and aluminum are shipped out of state, Lewis said. Shipping costs and limited barge space postponed glass from being recycled. Glass recycling in Anchorage hasn’t happened for more than a year, after the only company doing it had its machines break and the glass started piling up.

Lewis and Snyder spoke about the need for more recycling workers on campus as they slid cardboard between bags of paper. Lewis said a cardboard bailer, which compacts the bulky cardboard, is needed for the recycling program to handle more paper.

They seemed to struggle while transferring mounds of paper from plastic bins to the 25-gallon bags. Snyder said if they could get bigger, 50-gallon bags, they would be able to save time by dumping directly into the bins, instead of wasting time trying to scoop mounds of paper out by hand.

“If we’re going big, we’re going big across the board,” Snyder said. Hundreds of paper-punch holes spewed from a mound of paper he was trying to transfer from bin to bag. “I asked them not to put their damn paper-punch holes in the recycling.”

They finished with the Rasmuson Hall.

While Lewis prepared the building’s recyclables for transport to the Fine Arts Building compound, Snyder headed back to the Student Union for the Union of Students at UAA recycling program truck.

Snyder returned to where Lewis had 20 bags lying on the curb, waiting to be weighed and tossed in the back of the truck. Snyder adjusted the speaker volume so he and Lewis could lift, weigh and toss the bags in rhythm with KRS-One’s philosophized hip-hop music.

They continued gathering paper and cardboard, going from building to building across West Campus.

One Friday in mid-October, they were working their way through the labs at Beatrice McDonald Hall adjacent to the West Quad when they found squid mixed in with the paper, Lewis said.

When the back of the truck neared overfilling, they drove the back roads across campus to the recycling compound.

Lewis unlocked the green-fenced compound to reveal three six-cubic-yard trash bins.

“If we got a cardboard bailer, we could possibly get rid of the cardboard dumpster and get a third paper dumpster,” Lewis said.

Snyder backed up the truck, bags swaying and rolling as he jumped the curb getting into the compound, then turned the engine off. He left the battery running so he and Lewis could listen to music while they emptied the bags and cardboard into respective trash bins.

“They’ll be overflowing by the end of the day,” Lewis said. “That’s how it is every week.”

Snyder nodded as he shook out a bag. Alaska Waste Management transfers the paper and cardboard to the Smurfit-Stone Recycling Company center near Dowling Road, he said.

“It all ends up in the Lower 48,” he added.