Alaska, Education, Featured, Health

SEWARD’S RECYCLING HERO: Phyllis Shoemaker

“Seward is our home. My husband and I like being self-sufficient. For us, recycling, reducing, and reusing has always been a pretty natural way to live.”

I first met Phyllis Shoemaker at a Sustainable Seward: reduce, recycle, renew monthly meeting a few months ago. This is a community-run group that came out of last year’s second annual Seward Strong Planning Day. It is organized into three focus areas: education, business outreach, and political action. Part of the education initiative includes sharing local recycling heroes’ stories. The group chose Phyllis’ decades-long aluminum recycling efforts as the first story to record and feature.

Phyllis and I met at Rez Art for the interview, where we both enjoyed coffee using our own reusable mugs. As someone who had only recently moved to this community, I was excited to hear about Phyllis’ 40-plus year residence in Seward. She moved to Seward after graduating college in the late 1970’s to work for the Seward Marine Center, and has been here ever since. She and her husband live on a homestead right outside of town, where they enjoy living off the grid.

Tamara and Phyllis standing by the aluminum recycling bin located next to the Seward Marine Sciences Building.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

“SCRAP – Seward Community Recycle Action Program – initiated aluminum, newspaper, glass, paper, cardboard and plastic recycling in the mid-80s.”

Phyllis explained that she found out about Seward’s aluminum recycling efforts through her daughters’ involvement with the Girl Scouts and their collaboration with the local SCRAP group in the late-1980’s. Initially, SCRAP set up four or five bins to recycle aluminum around town, which the Girl Scouts then emptied, sorted, took to Anchorage, and sold as part of their ongoing fundraising efforts. During that time, SCRAP also initiated and set-up newspaper, glass, paper, cardboard and plastic recycling. In 1992, the Seward Transfer Facility opened and took over recycling those items, but not aluminum.

By that point, only two bins for recycling aluminum remained, and the logistics became too onerous for the Girl Scouts to remain involved. It was at this point that Phyllis and her husband took over the entire process. They have continued to give all of the proceeds to Girl Scouts and sometimes to Boy Scouts.

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HOW IT WORKS TODAY

“I don’t know if people aren’t aware of what gets recycled, but we get a lot of steel cans and cat food cans. Pineapple juice cans  are also not aluminum. All we want in there are the aluminum beverage cans, soda and beer.”

There are two aluminum recycling bins standing in Seward today, one by the Safeway parking lot, and one by the Seward Marine Sciences Building. Both are in good shape and recognizable. Once the bins are full, usually two times during spring and summer, and about once from fall through winter, Phyllis empties them and takes the bags to her property. She spends a couple hours sorting all the contents, because people throw in things that are not aluminum. This is what takes up most of the time. One way to test whether something is aluminum is to use a magnet on it. Steel/tin cans will be attracted to a magnet, aluminum will not.

She sorts the recyclables into large black gallon sized bags and stores them in her yard until her husband heads to Anchorage. He then takes the bags to a recycling facility in Ship Creek.  Phyllis explained, “The truck will hold about 15 bags of aluminum cans. The price paid per pound varies quite a bit. It is at a low point these days. Over the years we have been paid anywhere from $30 to $60 for a full truckload of cans.”

LOOKING FORWARD

 “It would be great to have more bins around town for people to put their cans into. A lot of people throw them in the trash because it’s convenient.”

Phyllis shared that many people have offered to help her over the years. However, because she empties the bins when it is convenient for her, often at the spur of the moment, she has not yet found a way to get others involved.  She would still like to find a way to get others involved, especially if more bins are added around town. One location she thinks really needs bins again is the boat harbor. “Cruise boats used to collect them for us.” The SCRAP group has the funds to add more bins for aluminum or other types of recyclables, but it is a matter of maintaining the efforts long-term, as Phyllis has done.

Phyllis also hopes that more people will join the efforts of the Sustainable Seward group in whatever way they can, because “There is only a limited supply of material on this world, so we should use it wisely.”

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