Cleaning Up Rural Alaska – The Marshall Cleanup

Story and photos by Charlie Ess, RAVEN AmeriCorps Program Coordinator, RurAL CAP

Excerpt photo: Through RurAL CAP’s RAVEN program, Ariel Lestenkof-Andrew, Tammy Papp, and Annette Andrew of Marshall, led by AmeriCorps Member, Danette Myers (second from left), facilitated the collection of 15 tons of solid waste, most of which was recycled and staged for backhaul and proves how committed youth can make a huge difference in their community.

Community cleanups are nothing new to Marshall. For years, the environmental department of the Marshall Tribal Council has hosted drives to collect cans, cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else local residents have been willing to part with in efforts to make the Yukon River community of around 400 a cleaner and safer community in which to live.

But this year was different. Though organizers can’t pinpoint a single element that led to the collection of more than 15 tons of trash, they think the combination of prizes, partnerships and a unique approach to community participation brought solid waste out of crannies where it had been hidden for years. Better yet, the trash that was collected wasn’t tossed together and added to the nearly impenetrable mound in the community landfill.

Already in May, a small crew within the community had collected nearly 17,000 pounds of assorted solid waste in an event that lasted well over a week. More than half of that tonnage was in the form of metals, and sorting those metals from wood, extricating aluminum cans and plastic bottles, and bagging them up for backhauling to Anchorage was enough to keep RAVEN AmeriCorps Member Danette Myers and her crew of three high-school girlfriends busy for three weeks. Many of the larger items in the cleanup consisted of snowmobile undercarriages and other scrap metals that the girls staged in areas where they could be flattened, banded, palletized and stockpiled for barges later this year and next.

RurAL CAP’s RAVEN AmeriCorps Members Daniel Klanott of Klukwan and Fred Brouillette of Haines stand outside of a facility where plastics, glass, batteries, electronic waste, cardboard and other materials are received then staged for backhaul.

In June, Myers and her group collected similar tonnages but with a focus on cleaning up residents’ yards. For nearly two weeks, Myers and her crew towed trailers behind ATV’s and loaded them with lumber, outboard motor parts, snowmobile and ATV frames, refrigerators, freezers and plastics. A key ingredient in the success of this year’s cleanup was that very little of what they picked up went into the landfill. Myers and her crew stopped at each of the yards, picked up all of the solid waste, then offloaded the various items in areas designated for aluminum scrap, aluminum cans and plastic bottles, steel scrap, electronic goods and batteries. The wood, meanwhile, was hauled to the dump but set aside for reuse in the construction of dog houses or burned in the stoves that heat up village steam baths.

Jeremy Woods, an IGAP technician working with the council offices, remembers plans fora massive cleanup in 2001, but the idea never seemed to gain traction among local residents.

“The idea was already in place when I came along,” says Woods, who was hired on with the council in 2008. And to some extent, Marshall had made good on staging goods and experienced some successes in backhauling.

About three years ago, a tug and barge headed upriver to Nenana stopped by Marshall and picked up about 30,000 pounds of assorted metals, but since then there has been little interest in backhauling as prices for scrap steel and even aluminum fell to lackluster levels. That metal prices have rebounded this year has provided some incentive to remove old cars, refrigerators, snowmobiles and ATV’s from rural communities, but it does little to get them from residents’ yards and staged near the riverbank.

That’s where Woods and Myers put their heads together.

“We were just trying to find ways to get people more motivated,” says Woods. In the weeks that followed, Woods and Myers came up with the idea of hosting a contest in which the residents with the cleanest yard would walk away with two round trip tickets from Marshall to Bethel. But there were a lot of other incentives to participate in the yard cleanup project, says Myers.

“We were thinking of good prizes,” she says, “prizes that people would actually want to compete for.”

With that, she and Woods began amassing goodies that included a weed whacker, tents, coolers…”things that people want nowadays,” says Myers. As another asset, Woods had around $4,000 allocated to hiring labor in the cleanup as part of an IGAP grant. As they cast about for candidates, the only ones to come forward and fill out applications turned out to be Myer’s high school chums Ariel Lestenkof-Andrew, Annette Andrew and Tammy Papp.

As the days wore on the and earth tilted toward the summer solstice, Myers became a familiar voice over the VHF radio with the announcements that residents could set unwanted treasures at the edges of their yards and that a crew would come by and pick them up. The radio campaign brought an onslaught of old appliances, decrepit snowmobiles and even a couple of vehicles that had been hiding in the alders for decades.

It was so simple,” says Myers of getting residents to participate. “We clean your yard and make it the cleanest, and you win.”

By then, Myers was well versed in what to do with the stuff she and her crew picked up. Myers and members from 19 other rural communities had been recruited to put in a year of service under RurAL CAP’s Rural Alaska Village Environmental Network (RAVEN) AmeriCorps program. The program, which has been running since 1995, has been designed to recruit local members who address community needs in all aspects of environmental improvement. The AmeriCorps members also host healthy activities for youth and recruit volunteers within the community to carry out various projects.

In April, Myers and the other members had been flown to Anchorage to complete a second set of AmeriCorps technical sessions aimed at improving methods of handling solid waste. The four-day training week in April had been focused on the aspects of collecting household hazardous waste, with hands-on sessions in preparing lead acid batteries for shipping, shrink wrapping electronic waste on pallets for air transport and forming partnerships with air carriers, recyclers and others impassioned with reducing the tonnage of bad stuff headed for local landfills.

Key presenters at the training sessions included experts from Total Reclaim, Zender Environmental, Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling (ALPAR) and others who offered hands-on training and left calling cards behind in hopes that would summon them for expertise later in the year.

Danette Myers and Ariel Lestenkoff prepare aluminum cans for the Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling (ALPAR) Flying Cans Program to be backhauled from Marshall.

By the end of July, Myers and her crew had amassed tons of steel, scrap aluminum and other goods among the staging areas near the river. Snowmobile undercarriages were flattened with a small dozer, stacked and banded on pallets to ease loading onto the barge. At the same time, bags containing 285 pounds of empty aluminum cans were labeled and readied for delivery via the ALPAR Flying Cans program.

Hardly had this year’s cleanup effort began winding down when Woods and Myers began planning for a sequel next year.

Woods says that next year, they’ll start with fundraising in January instead of March. The lag time in waiting to hear back from vendors in Bethel and elsewhere with prizes, money or other donations pushed back the date of the cleanup. Myers says that timing the cleanup to coincide with the end of the school year would probably generate more volunteers.

“It would be best if we alerted people in the community to clean their yards about a week before the cleanup,” she says. “That way, the volunteers wouldn’t be cleaning around everybody’s houses.”

Also in the future, Woods and Myers hope to attend refrigerant removal training so that they can become certified to decant the accumulation of refrigerators and freezers and ready those for backhaul.

In late September, Woods and Myers remained hopeful that a barge would arrive and take an appreciable volume of what they’d staged near the river out of Marshall for good. Meanwhile, the 285 pounds of aluminum had been flown to recyclers in Anchorage along with six bulging sacks of No. 1 plastic bottles.

As anyone who’s tried to backhaul recyclables out of a village along the banks of Alaska’s rivers will attest, barging heavy loads out of town is an iffy proposal. Water levels fluctuate wildly within days of rainy or dry spells, and the latter condition often creates hesitance among Yukon River tug and barge operators to load on much weight, particularly when it comes to vehicles as the trip upriver to Nenana can take more than a week.

While it’s true that the volumes of solid waste that came from the waterfront and from around residents’ homes have a long way to go before they’re gone from Marshall for good they are, nonetheless, a snapshot of the future as rural communities evolve in the handling of solid waste.