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Profile in Service: AmeriCorps Member Innovates, Alaska Community Recycles

by Fred Wong

On April 21, 2009, President Obama signed the Serve America Act into law – the most sweeping expansion of national service in a generation. To mark the one year anniversary, we are going to spotlight the stories of everyday service heroes who are transforming lives and local communities across the country. Here is Opik's story.

In rural Nome, Alaska planes are needed to transport anything and anyone to anywhere. When planes make return trips, they typically head back with empty cargo holds.

That is, until RAVEN AmeriCorps Member Opik Ahkinga got involved. She and her site supervisor, Anahma Saito, a planning development specialist with Kawerak, Inc., a regional Native corporation, have established Nome as a local staging site for collecting and backhauling recyclable goods and waste from about 20 surrounding villages.

The idea of loading empty planes with recyclable solid waste isn’t new, but in the past, the costs were prohibitive. What’s new this time around is that communities and businesses have been willing to share the costs of cleaning up the environment.

The recycling company, Total Reclaim, charges a reduced rate to accept and process the solid waste and provides the labor of unloading trash from the planes. Everts Air Cargo, one of the participating air carriers, has pledge empty space on its planes. Under Akhinga’s direction, local volunteers collect and package the solid waste –including spent batteries, electronic waste, and aluminum cans – for the trip to the recyclers.

In February, Saito and Ahkinga organized the inaugural Bering Strait Waste and Water Workshop, a three-day symposium on water quality and solid waste handling techniques. For many attendees, the highlight of symposium was loading and sending off a plane with 1,100 pounds of lead acid batteries and 500 pounds of electronic waste that otherwise would have contaminated the local environment.

The very next month, Ahkinga brought this innovation to her hometown of Little Diomede, a tiny Ingalikmiut Eskimo community perched on a rocky island along the International Date Line. For years, village residents hauled garbage of all kinds out onto the sea ice and burned it, because there is no room on the island for a landfill.

Ahkinga knew that this practice harms the marine environment that local residents depend on for birds, fish, seals, and other subsistence foods; so she spent three weeks recruiting local volunteers in an effort to rid the town of lead-acid batteries and other waste. In the course of a week, Ahkinga and her crew of trash collectors loaded and airplane with more than 1,000 pounds of waste. With no road system and no vehicles on Little Diomede, Akhinga says that all of the items had to be carried to the airstrip on their backs or in makeshift sleds.

Afterward, Akhinga held community meetings with local youth and others in hopes of encouraging recycling and backhauling as a way of life.

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