Bridging the Gap


Subaru of America, Inc. and the National Park Service Search for Zero-Landfill Solutions in Denali National Park


I’ve been traveling on a bus for five hours down a backcountry road in Alaska’s Denali National Park when an excited cry goes up from one of the passengers. In response, the bus slides to a halt, dust flying, as we all press faces and hands to the windows, jostling to see, cameras clicking. The creature in question – a bull moose – looks up from the nearby willows as if wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s a true Denali moment, one of many on this day. So far the tally of wildlife we’ve encountered reads like a child’s wish list: eight grizzly bears, four caribou, one golden eagle, and 10 Dall sheep. It’s the kind of day that so many who flock to this majestic national park hope to experience.

“It’s like being a kid again,” says Denise Coogan, Subaru Environmental Partnership Manager. “Your head is on a pivot. Every sight is more wondrous than the last.” 

Bull Moose looks up from the nearby willows.
More than half a million visitors come to the park each year,
			leaving a considerable amount of garbage in their wake.

Meeting the Challenge 

Coogan and her colleagues aren’t here to sightsee, however. In stark contrast to the idyllic scene playing out before them, the park struggles with a big problem – trash left behind by park visitors. The National Park Service (NPS) reports that caribou have been found dead with stomachs full of plastic bags. The ground gets so cold here that organics freeze, rather than decompose, and may never compost. Glass can take a million years to break down in the natural environment. Coogan is part of an unprecedented partnership between Subaru of America, Inc., the NPS, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), aimed at meeting these challenges head-on through the development of zero-landfill strategies that will help keep the parks clean. 
More than half a million visitors come to the park each year, leaving a considerable amount of garbage in their wake. While the parks do a wonderful job collecting that trash and keeping the parks clean for visitors, the trash must be transported 50 miles to reach the nearest landfill. More efficient options have proven elusive. Far removed from any major towns, Denali represents one of the collaboration’s biggest challenges, but also holds the promise of huge rewards. If NPS and Subaru can devise zero-landfill solutions for a place as remote as Denali, those strategies could potentially work just about anywhere. “Waste management in Alaska is such a challenge,” notes Melissa Blair, Alaska field representative for the NPCA. “This is going to be such a wonderful model.”

The zero-waste legacy is something Subaru can’t help but be excited about. “Just to be a part of something like this is such an honor,” confirms Coogan.

Trucks pile waste at the Central Landfill for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Trucks pile waste at the Central Landfill for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, one of the destinations for national park waste.
To think of the big picture and know we were a part of something, it is just awe-inspiring.

Over the Limit

To understand what the park has done so far, the team visits the Fairbanks Rescue Mission Recycling Center – a nonprofit recycling facility. This facility is the main recycling center for Fairbanks, with an annual capacity of about 1.5 million pounds. Until recently, this is where much of Denali’s recycling had been processed. Cardboard waste from the park overwhelmed the facility so much that they won’t take it anymore. Pre-baling cardboard – compressing it into bound cubes – would help, states Michelle Harpole, the center’s administrative manager, but that won’t change the fact that there is too much to recycle and not enough space or means to move it. 

Buying Time

 The team visits the Denali Borough Landfill, a relatively young dumpsite managed by the borough’s mayor, Clay Walker. The landfill has been in operation since 1999, servicing an area the size of Tennessee. The biggest challenge of the landfill is to maximize its lifespan, explains Walker, which is expected to last about 23 years on the existing footprint. “The further we can push that date out, the better for everybody.” Walker identifies cardboard as one of the biggest sources of trash and the best “low-hanging fruit” for a more robust recycling program. Finding a pathway to a recycling facility for cardboard is the big challenge.  “We’re so many miles from, well, most everything here,” he muses. The landfill would need to send cardboard hundreds of miles to the nearest facility, with few trucks or other means of getting it there. 

Cardboard lies sorted and packaged for recycling at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission Recycling Center.
Cardboard lies sorted and packaged for recycling at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission Recycling Center, which until recently had been the main recycling facility for Denali National Park until the amount of recycling overwhelmed the facility.

Denali has already made great strides in reducing waste, thanks in large part to its partnership with park concessioner Aramark. On bus tours, the company provides boxed meals packaged almost entirely in recyclable materials, including aluminum water bottles. Aluminum bottles can be reused for many years, whereas most plastic bottles are used once and then discarded.

It’s clear from the discussions that the answers lie somewhere in creating new opportunities and pooling resources. There’s a lot of work ahead, but the team is optimistic. “The will is definitely there. It’s just the mechanics, the infrastructure, the way that gets us there,” notes Dominic Canale, district manager for Aramark. 

The deeply held belief that all of them share is that Denali is a gift. 

Scott Richardson, tour bus driver.
That much bigger idea, of the experience of a wild unchanged place, is probably the best possible souvenir you can take away from a trip like this.

That is the hope of this team. Adds NPCA’s Carrie Smith, “Each one of us is creating what I think is a new legacy for the national parks.”
What a thought: a legacy that leaves a mark, by not leaving one at all.

Get more details about the zero-landfill initiative and how Subaru is partnering with the National Park Service to reduce waste in the parks.

Denali National Park