Juneau has a trash problem.
As each day passes, the city’s only landfill’s lifespan — estimated to last around 20 more years — gets shorter and shorter, and the need for a long-term solution gets more immediate.
However, thanks to a recent move by Congress, Juneau’s privately owned landfill’s dwindling lifespan could be extended a bit long and along with it the window of opportunity to find a long-term solution.
Included in the $1.7 trillion spending bill set to be signed by President Biden, the City and Borough of Juneau was earmarked to receive $2.5 million in funding toward designing and constructing a commercial-scale compost facility — which could potentially divert millions of pounds of food scraps from the Capitol Disposal Landfill in the Lemon Creek area.
According to CBJ City Manager Rorie Watt, the facility will be a “game changer” for Juneau and aid the community’s goals of becoming more sustainable as Juneau’s trash problem has become an exponentially growing issue over the past few decades.
The Capitol Disposal Landfill is expected to only last 17 to 26 more years, with a possible closing date between 2037 and 2046, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Because the landfill is privately owned and regulated by the state of Alaska, Watt said the city is largely a “bystander” of how the two entities conduct the business, however, the city and other private businesses have taken efforts to aid the diversion of solid waste from the landfill.
The most recent action the Assembly has taken to reduce the amount of waste heading to the Juneau landfill was in early September when it signed a memorandum of agreement with member companies of Alaska Cruise Association to agree on several tourism management issues in Juneau which an understanding that cruise ships will “minimize offloading of ship waste and eliminate offloading of bulky waste” that are sent to CBJ’s landfill, though It does not completely bar ships from offloading into the landfill.
Other less recent efforts taken by the city include establishing its RecycleWorks program which provides funds for recycling, household hazardous waste and junk vehicle services.
However, according to Watt, those efforts are probably not enough.
“We as a community have to do better — it won’t last forever,” he said.
Though the city itself does not currently provide compost services, a private business, Juneau Composts!, has largely led the movement toward composting in Juneau since its establishment in 2017 by Juneau resident Lisa Daugherty.
According to its website, more than 1.2 million pounds of food scraps have been diverted from landfill because of its members’ efforts.
The business has been leasing CBJ land for its composting efforts since 2019. Watt said he hopes the city and the business can collaborate on the new facility efforts, but he noted the city will still hold a competitive process and solicitation.
Watt said that process will be one of the city’s many priorities, but emphasized that the public process takes time and a lot of planning will need to be done before boots hit the ground.
“The goal is to build something for the community that will last for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Daugherty said she was excited to hear the news of CBJ receiving the funds, however she expressed concerns about what the future of her business might look like because of it. Juneau Composts! charges the residents and businesses that receive its service, and she said if the city makes its service free, it could put her out of business.
Though she said she has spoken with city officials about a possible collaboration, the city has not been able to offer reassurance that her business would be a part of the process — not competing against it.
“I hope that the city would support small businesses in our community rather than compete with it and create partnerships that are multifaceted,” she said. “It would be a shame if they just brushed us aside.”
Because the plans for the facility are still very early, Daugherty said she is hesitant to get more involved in the process until she understands more about the long term plan of the facility, and the quality of compost that would be produced.
“I’d like to see a self-sustaining model for waste management and recycling,” she said. “In general, the model I have proved is self sustaining — it’s the users for my service that pay fully for the operational cost.”
Assembly member Wade Bryson, chair of the Public Works Committee, said as time ticks by and the landfill continues to remain without a permanent solution, any effort to divert waste and extend the life of the landfill in Juneau is a good thing. Bryson said this could be a major step in the right direction — if done correctly.
“It’s gonna take common sense ideas to make it work for everybody,” he said. “It’s the direction that Juneau has requested to go, it’s aligned with Assembly goals — we’re trying to get to zero waste and this definitely helps.”
Bryson said the real challenge is going to be getting both residents and businesses to participate in composting and take the steps to do so. He said from his experience attempting to compost at the Subway in Juneau which he owns, it can be a difficult and time-consuming transition without the right resources.
“To get the community to buy into composting, it needs to be simple and cost-effective,” he said.
Bryson said once planning begins for the facility, it will likely be reviewed and investigated multiple times by multiple CBJ committees, including the Public Works and Facilities. Bryson said when the effort is considered by the committee he hopes to put forth ideas to make it as accessible and easy for the community as possible.
Bryson offered as an example the idea of putting the facility close to the same location as the CBJ recycling and household hazardous waste facilities, which he said could urge more residents to also compost because of the convenient location.
“Every day that we extend the landfill when we don’t have solutions for it, it’s a better day for Juneau,” he said.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.