Haines sits on 7 tons of plastic it can't afford to send out for recycling

“Plastic is a wonderful product because it lasts. It’s also a really horrible product because it lasts,” Haines Friends of Recycling board chair Melissa Aronson said, standing in the operation’s warehouse. In a shipping container outside, more than seven tons of plastic waits to be sent to Seattle for recycling.

The nonprofit has been stockpiling plastic since October 2021, as the market for selling recycled plastic is practically nonexistent, Aronson said. Haines usually sends one load of plastic to Seattle each year.

Juneau’s municipal and private recycling programs have continued to ship plastics without interruption, Juneau RecycleWorks Operations Manager Stuart Ashton said last week. However, due to a poor market for recycled plastics, Juneau organizations have been paying for their plastic to be recycled for roughly two years. If it becomes too expensive to recycle, plastic will start going to the landfill, Ashton said.

“We can store it here but the market is not turning around,” Ashton said. “It’s only going down. To process the plastic becomes too much for the city budget.”

Wrangell does not recycle its plastic waste — only aluminum cans. It’s the same cost factor as other communities. Recycling can raise money for organizations that collect the materials, but only if there are buyers willing to pay more than the shipping costs.

The price of plastic fluctuates with oil prices, HFR board vice-chair Kate Saunders said. When oil prices are low, corporations opt for manufacturing new plastic rather than buying recycled product.

Haines Friends of Recycling is looking into new technology to recycle plastic on-site and eliminate the cost of shipping.

“A lot of people are getting really interested in Alaska because this is such a huge issue for us,” Saunders said. “I'm not quite sure of our direction at the moment but with the amount of support and interest we've had from our community, I'm not going to let this go. We are going to come up with some kind of solution.”

A plastics recycling machine would cost between $65,000 and $75,000, and the nonprofit would have to raise the money from grants and donations, Aronson said. Melted plastic from the machine could be used to produce plastic lumber for picnic tables, decking and benches. It is not strong enough, nor is it allowed, to be used for construction.

“The great thing about it is it doesn't break down so it lasts way longer,” Saunders said. “You don't have it rotting out.”

In the meantime, Aronson hopes that residents will continue to find ways to reduce their waste. The Haines Borough passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in 2019. Since then, plastic bags have been “sprouting up in town again,” Aronson said.

“We just need to remind people. The plastic bags are horrible. All the plastics are bad. They get into the waterways, marine life chokes on them, they clog up equipment, they blow into trees, they're just a mess,” she said.


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