In Wrangell, recycling isn’t as simple as wheeling a plastic container out to the curb each week. That service doesn’t exist in most communities in Southeast Alaska. Not to mention trying to get rid of large items like old TVs, computers and printers. In order to prevent these items from ending up in a landfill, items need to be sorted by hand and shipped off the island. Aaron Bolton joined Wrangell’s local tribe as they collected the town’s broken electronics.
Early on a Saturday morning, Kim Wickman is sorting through a bin full of old cell phones, chargers and cords. Wickman works for the Wrangell Cooperative Association and has been building the tribe’s existing recycling efforts since coming on board last year.
“Every year we’ve been putting together the free disposal-recycle guide, and it’s just so people can have an idea,” Wickman explained. “‘OK, we can bring our household batteries down to the WCA office, and they’re going to make sure they get disposed of properly, or I can take my ink cartridge down there.’”
On Wrangell Island, the recycling guide is the closest thing to a consistent program. It lists several businesses and individuals who dispose of everything from animal carcasses to used motor oil. But getting rid of large electronics is a whole other problem.
“I spent a lot of time out the road on the logging roads, and you find broken computer towers because people don’t know what to do with them. They don’t want their data going out there to where somebody could steal information,” Wickman said. “So they take them out and shoot them or maybe run over them, and that’s not the best option for them. So they need another option.”
As the morning rolls on, three pallets are quickly stacking up. Someone drops off a huge sack, easily weighing more than 150 pounds, full of industrial cords.
But, most people are just cleaning out their closet. Kay Larson unloads several items out of her truck.
“I’ve got a bunch – I’ve got an external hard drive that it’s old and dead and a couple of old computers that ran out on me and a printer,” Larson listed.
KSTK: How long have you been holding onto some of this stuff?
Kay: Probably about 17 years some of it. I’m just thrilled to have this event here. I started housecleaning in order to get my things ready for this.
Adam Tlachac brought in a couple of old laptops. If this event didn’t come along, Tlachac explains he wouldn’t have known what to do with them.
“Eventually I would have gotten sick of seeing it on the shelf and probably just thrown it in with the rest of the trash. I’m just glad it’s not ending up in a waste landfill,” he said.
All of the items that are collected are being taken by Total Reclaim, a Seattle-based electronic recycler. Ryley Konsinski has worked with the company’s Alaska branch for about 10 years.
He’s already starting to break things down, snapping a paper tray off a printer stacked on several others. Items are separated into categories based on the components inside them and their value.
“Anything we accept electronic wise, it’s a balancing act between what we can get on the back side after it’s broken down and sorted versus how much it costs us to process it,” Konsinski explained, “to basically have our guys either break it down by hand or have it go through our processing equipment and separate out the plastics, the metals, the circuitry and in the case of the monitors, the clean glass versus the leaded glass.”
Konsinski travels around Alaska providing education and outreach to rural communities who may not know how to get an event like this going. He started working in Southeast six years ago and Total Reclaim now collects about 400,000 pounds of e-waste in the region every year.
Total Reclaim charges to take most items, but gladly collects computers for free, which contain the most precious metals.
“Again, like one computer, you can’t take it to McDonalds and get a big mac with it,” Konsinski said. “But, if you have hundreds and thousands of computers you’re processing, you can start building big lots of circuitry where we do get some good value out of it.”
Most items will either be broken down by hand or literally smashed and sorted. Pieces will be sent to downstream recyclers as far as Japan and Europe, where metals and plastics will be broken down and reintroduced into the manufacturing market.
The Wrangell Cooperative Association plans to hold a collection event annually, and is picking up the tab this year. Wickman hopes it entices people to not just pay to bring items into the community, but also pay to get them out.