Fort Yukon's recycling effort becomes a model for other villages

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2004

FAIRBANKS Nothing went to waste when Doris Ward was a child living off the land with her family in the woods near Fort Yukon.

Ward learned more ways to recycle and reuse as a single mother of eight.

So when Fort Yukon started a recycling program eight years ago, the 76-year-old woman took to it right away.

She shops with the canvas bag the local tribal government gave out when plastic grocery bags were banned from the community on the Yukon River 145 air miles northeast of Fairbanks.

She frequents the tribe-operated used clothing shop for blankets, coats and other like-new items for her children and grandchildren.

''I like to get all-wool sweaters that shrink from washing,'' she said. ''I use that for the inside of winter mitts. Really warm. We did that in the old days. I still live like that.''

Rural Interior communities have been finding ways to reduce the amount of waste going to their landfills by recycling hazardous waste, aluminum, glass, batteries and clothing. Some villages such as Fort Yukon have well-established programs, while others are just starting out.

''We started back-hauling hazardous household waste out on Yutana Barge Lines,'' said Vickie Thomas, the environmental manager for the Native village of Fort Yukon. Thomas has been with the program since it started in 1996.

Recently, Thomas sent a load of used vehicle batteries back to Fairbanks via an empty charter plane, she said. Since the program started, they have collected 553 batteries or about 70 a year, she said.

A burner that uses waste oil heats the village offices and recycle center, thanks to a grant from the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Health Board, she said. Still, the community sent out 63 drums of oil last year, she said. They've also collected 2,000 pounds of aluminum cans.

Last June, Thomas, who is also the mayor of Fort Yukon, worked with the City Council to pass an ordinance that banned the use of plastic shopping bags. ''Every spring they were flying all over the place,'' she said. ''You don't see them in trees anymore.''

The Native village bought canvas bags for every community member to use for shopping, Thomas said. She solicits ideas from the community and as a result opened a used clothing and appliance store.

''All the clothes and appliances end up in the landfill,'' she said. ''We started collecting. It just turned into a little store.''

People either pay a small fee or trade for items at the store, she said.

Thomas has partnered with other businesses to move the program along. One of those agreements is with the local University of Alaska Fairbanks carpentry class, whose members will build trash boxes for residents to keep the ravens out of the garbage. Thomas just needs to find the money for materials.

Fort Yukon's recycling program is a model for other villages, said Bryan Neubert, environmental specialist for the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.

''One of the problems we have up here is people bring things up here and leave it here and say 'You can have it,''' Neubert said. ''But then it breaks down and you have to leave it here.''

CATG offers technical advice for its member tribal governments that want to operate recycling programs, he said.

''I think people see the need to reduce the amount of waste that goes to the landfill,'' he said.

Chalkyitsik Native village has made the decision to reduce, said Chester Druck, the village's environmental planner. The village recycles aluminum and the program has been popular, he said.

Druck just started a vehicle battery program. He's also in the process of getting the permits needed for a new landfill.

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