Thursday, February 6, 2014

SNRAS grad student researches rural Alaska solid waste management

SNRAS graduate student William Wilkins will likely spend the coming summer sorting through trash at the Yakutat landfill, and he is looking forward to it.

Wilkins, who spent the winter break studying life-cycle assessments via EASETECH (Environmental Assessment System for Environmental Technologies) computer modeling at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby, will examine the solid waste system in Yakutat for his thesis. "My goal is simply to look at solid waste management in one Alaska village and establish system boundaries," he said.

Rural Alaska landfills such as this will be the focus of Wilkins' research.
Solid waste management practices impact social welfare and health, the natural environment and supporting ecological services.

When he puts the data into the EASETECH system, it will calculate all the emissions. "They've done the really complex math," Wilkins said. "Then by changing something that seems little, it could have a big effect on the environment. The model is only as good as the data you put into it."

The EASETECH program will allow Wilkins to assess environmental relevance, compare incomparables and interpret sensitivity analysis and outcomes.

Wilkins' professor, Mingchu Zhang, discovered the EASETECH program and the course in Denmark and asked Wilkins if he was interested. Of course the adventurous student jumped at the chance.

Wilkins earned a bachelor of science degree in environmental soil science at Colorado State University in 2005, then worked four years as a range technician for the Oregon Department of State Lands. In 2011-12, he served in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, helping with gardening, agroforestry, medicinal gardening and HIV/AIDS education.

He chose the University of Alaska Fairbanks because he wanted to study in Alaska. Yakutat is his study area because fellow graduate student Sarah Liben is conducting place-based environmental education research there. "I thought there was good synergy in the work she is doing and the connections she has made," Wilkins said.

Yakutat is located on the Gulf of Alaska about 200 miles northwest of Juneau. The current waste management system is an open landfill where it is common practice to burn plastic, rubber, metals and other harmful materials.

"The current practices are impacting the soil, water and air," Wilkins explained during a lecture to NRM 692 students Feb. 6. Soil is being degraded by leachates from a variety of sources in the dump, including hazardous waste from old cars, refrigerators and household waste. Surface and ground water run the risk of degradation and contamination from leachates and organic waste. Land and water are subject to pollution from uncontained waste such as plastic, rubber, cardboard and paper moved out of the dump by wind and rain. Air quality is compromised by low temperature burning that releases harmful carcinogens and greenhouse gases.

Wilkins plans to meet with stakeholders, including community members, representatives of national and state agencies and nonprofits such as the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, starting spring break.

"I'm going to ask the what are the barriers and how to overcome them and who should be involved," Wilkins said. "We'll identify major issues and concerns. First I have to broach the topic of me digging through their trash."

He plans to conduct surveys, follow up on that input and present the results. The objectives are to evaluate the current system, create an optimal system and arrive at a practical system. Another tool Wilkins uses is ecoinvent.

"This could set a precedent for planning and implementation of solid waste management plans for other Alaska villages," Wilkins said. 

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