Alaska Public Media: A new e-waste program is recycling tons of batteries from rural Alaska

The organizers of a new initiative that retrieves e-waste from across rural Alaska report they collected and recycled over 145,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries from 45 communities last year.

Backhaul Alaska is an idea from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and now receives federal grant money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency to address the challenge of getting hazardous waste out of remote Alaska communities.

Reilly Kosinski works for Zender Environmental, a nonprofit that manages the Backhaul program. He said waste management is uniquely challenging in much of the state.

“In Alaska many of our small communities are roadless,” Kosinski said. “They might only have access to a barge one or two times a year. And there’s just a lack of infrastructure to deal with waste in the same manner that folks in the Lower 48 do.”

Kosinski said Alaska has a special exemption to use Class III landfills, which are unlined and involve minimal mitigation, leaving the surrounding environment more susceptible. As the batteries break down, the toxic lead can seep into drinking water, or if they are burned, which Kosinski said is still common, the chemicals are released into the air.

“So it just makes it more important to kind of keep those potentially harmful things from going into the landfill in the first place,” he said.

The program trains local residents to safely consolidate hazardous batteries and other e-waste, and then coordinates discounted backhaul shipments on cargo ships or planes. Kosinski said the waste is then delivered to certified recycling facilities in the Lower 48.

John Kyte, communications director for the Responsible Battery Coalition, a national organization supporting Backhaul Alaska, said lead acid batteries are 99% recyclable and the lead can be reused indefinitely.

“If you went out today to buy a brand new battery, regardless of where you buy it, it’s entirely possible that the lead in that battery could be 20, 30, 40, 50 years old,” Kyte said. “Lead is 100% recyclable.”

2022 was the first official year of the initiative, and Kosinski said it’s looking like they may collect even more e-waste this year.

For Alaskans in bigger cities looking to unload e-waste, Kosinski recommended services from Total Reclaim or Central Recycling Services in Anchorage or Green Star of Interior Alaska in Fairbanks. As for spent lead-acid batteries, he said most auto shops that sell car batteries will gladly take your old ones.

By:  Michael Fanelli
Source: Alaska Public Media