It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in the U.S. where recycling is not so commonplace. Even harder to imagine is that one of those places is a national park.
Alaska, known for its untamed natural beauty, faces many obstacles when it comes to establishing a recycling program, due in part to its remote location. At Denali National Park, where we manage guest services, this is even more so the case, as the nearest major city with recycling services is several hours away.
Let’s get one thing clear: they do recycle in Alaska. Hubs like Anchorage, among other locations, are able to establish waste management programs with relative efficiency, but the infrastructure throughout the state is not nearly as strong.
Consider these challenges to better understand why this might be the case:
- Many towns and residents are isolated, some only accessible by plane or boat
- Most communities have a population of less than 2,000
- The amount recycled might not warrant the cost in capital
- Equipment, like sorters and compactors, can be cost-prohibitive
- Materials often have to be shipped to Seattle, or another far-off port
At all the National Parks we serve we face challenges similar to these, but at Denali National Park it’s amplified. Not only do we have to create a waste management program in a secluded location, but we also have to navigate the lack of structure within the state itself.
Despite those obstacles, we believe a strong waste management program is the most responsible, logical, and economical choice for Denali. And over the past 20+ years, working in close collaboration with the National Park Service, we’ve committed a considerable amount of time and effort to that cause.
Since there is no municipal recycling program in rural Alaska, materials have to go through various local privately owned companies and non-profits. Through this network of local partners we’re able to open channels of communication and create a consistent, repeatable recycling process—our own recycling infrastructure.
Within our own operations we proactively look for different ways to make recycling more efficient and more cost-effective.
- Sourcing: We procure goods that are easily recyclable and monetized—canned goods, glass bottles, and the like—allowing us to more efficiently manage the long-term cost of waste.
- Sorting & Compacting: We set up our own sorting and compacting system to simplify the process and alleviate the pressure on our partners. Cans, cardboard and other recyclables are collected, separated and compacted into cubes on site. The capital investment on our end prevents backups down the line and ensures our recyclables don’t wind up in the landfill.
- Transportation: Limiting pickups to a couple times a week and optimizing routes helps reduce travel time, carbon dioxide emissions and fuel consumption. And by having the recycled materials pre-packaged, we’re able to minimize time spent on site.
- Product Innovation: By installing water refill stations throughout the park and encouraging visitors to switch to aluminum bottles, we’ve minimized the amount of plastic in the waste stream. Additionally, all our to-go containers are now entirely made from compostable materials.
- Education & Participation: The half a million people who visit the park are our ultimate resource. Our efforts would not be successful if the people in the park were not committed, and we hope that our commitment inspires theirs.
To that end, we take any opportunity to simplify the recycling process and engage consumers. We co-locate recycling bins with trash bins, employ informational signage and host engaging educational talks, so visitors are more cognizant about tossing their waste.
All of these efforts are equally important, but none could possibly be accomplished alone. Every idea, every initiative, every innovation is formed in partnership with the National Park Service.
Denali is also a pilot park for the Zero Landfill Initiative. As part of this effort, we work with the National Park Service to develop programs to physically divert waste from the landfill, one plastic bottle at a time. Additionally, we work to create awareness and encourage participation among visitors. This includes engaging programs that modify behavior, like trip preplanning, to enable environmentally minded visitors to choose not to send any waste to the landfill.
We recognize the role we play in helping to responsibly manage waste in our parks. Not only for the millions of people who visit, but for the plants and wildlife that call these places home. Establishing a strong recycling program is just one way to do that.
For the visitors who make the trek, they get a chance to hike, raft and search for wildlife in a cleaner, safer park. And they get to actively participate in keeping it pristine.
For our National Parks, partnering to create more sustainable programs helps them deliver on their mission of preservation and creates positive associations between the visitors and the park.
Alaska is the last frontier, one of the only large, unspoiled environments left in the country. And it’s our responsibility to help keep in that way.