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, they need to be sorted by hand and shipped off the island.
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. She even brings household batteries dropped off at her office on personal trips to recycle, 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.”
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 unloaded several items out of her truck, including a dead external hard drive, some old computers and a printer. She said she’d been holding on to that stuff for about 17 years.
“I’m just thrilled to have this event here,” Larson said. “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 explained 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,” Tlachac said. “I’m just glad it’s not ending up in a waste landfill.”
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 – 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 said.
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. Total Reclaim 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 McDonald’s and get a Big Mac with it, 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,” Konsinski said.
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.