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Bethel’s tribe receives $1.3M to improve recycling

Bethel's recycling building.
Sunni Bean
Bethel's recycling building.

Bethel’s tribe, the Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC), manages recycling in town. Right now its program is small. ONC has a program for bottles and cans, which relies on residents contacting ONC staff who come by and pick up recycling. But the tribe’s recycling center doesn’t have the capacity to process very much waste. Mostly, the recycling building is used for storage.

“What we wanted to do was expand our capacity,” explained Nia Long, who worked as the natural resources technician for the tribe last year. She spent two months coming up with ideas about the best ways to improve Bethel’s sustainable waste solutions.

“So we put in for the grant to receive can crushers so we can actually break down this material faster,” Long said. “We also want to put some recycling dumpsters around. That'll make it easier for people because right now we have to go and drive to each house and pick up this waste.”

The grant Long is referring to is part of a $22.4 million pot of money from the United States Environmental Protection Agency for solid waste infrastructure for recycling, which is aimed at improving waste disposal and recycling throughout Alaska. In November, the tribe received a $1.3 million grant to address a variety of waste disposal issues in town.

“The application is very, very detailed,” Long said. “You needed to account for everything, every dollar that you're going to be spending.”

Long said that when applying to the grant program, she had to consider what would make the greatest long term impact on Bethel’s recycling infrastructure. She said that it took concerted efforts to coordinate between the tribe’s natural resources department and the tribal council, city council, and city manager to find out what ONC could do to help Bethel. The meetings and the tribe’s research led to three main ideas for improving waste disposal.

“It's very exciting what we've decided to do,” said Long. “So one of the things that we had initially talked about, because it was the most feasible thing, was expanding our current recycling program.”

Not only will there be more processing equipment and recycling dumpsters dotted around town, but the tribe is also planning to introduce a program where people can leave their recycling containers outside their home for pick up in plastic crates, like programs in the lower 48.

Recycling only addresses some kinds of waste, though. ONC is also planning to create a community composting system to tackle food waste. Long said that they put money in the grant to buy three large composting drums and build a steel frame building to house them.

“And we can collect waste, most likely starting from major businesses and, like, producers of food waste. And that can just help something that feeds from the landfill to this composting program. And then we can help provide, you know, fertilizer and soil for the community later on,” said Long.

Long said that the grant will help them get the infrastructure in place for longer-term programs.

“All of these things that are being funded by this grant are going to really decrease the overhead later on. Because I think that's the biggest hurdle sometimes: just actually getting to a point where you can start these programs,” Long said. “So this grant is allowing us to get over that initial hurdle.”

The third way ONC will use the grant funds to address waste systems in town is facilitating the safe disposal of electronic waste, including laptops, phones, TVs, and home appliances like refrigerators, lamps, and toasters.

“As anyone who lives in Bethel knows, the Bethel landfill basically collects everything that is discarded in Bethel. We used to have an electronic waste disposal program, but it's an incredibly expensive program to run just because you have to get everything backhauled. And that costs thousands of dollars based on the weight of the materials that you're backhauling,” said Long.

Long said that ONC will set aside a couple hundred thousand dollars for the electronic waste removal to cover three collection drives per year for at least the next three years.

To get the electronic waste out of the bush, they’ll collect what’s piled up in the dump or on people’s properties and put it into shipping containers to get it sent out to processing centers in places like Seattle.

Long said that in her view, addressing electronic waste is incredibly important because of the health risks from seepage of toxic chemicals.

“I think I came from a, very much from a health perspective and thinking about the implications that the solid waste infrastructure has on the health of the individual, and how that relates to cancer and chronic illness, respiratory disease, autoimmune disorders. And I, when this grant opened, I saw this as an opportunity to just make a little change and take part in something that can maybe just shift it just a bit,” Long said.

“But that's the perspective that I came from with it. And I think it was a little bit jarring coming from the lower 48. When you first go to the Bethel landfill and say, ‘oh my goodness, like, this is an actual issue in this community and there's something that I can do about it,’” Long said.

ONC hopes to have access to the funds starting December 2023, and to start the initial phases of the project when job vacancies have been filled.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.