NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2004 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Effects of Open Landfills on an Arctic Community


Megan Jones
Cynthia McCoy
Chris Proch
Colin Davis
Nancy Myers


Team Amaguq
Selawik Davis Ramoth High School
P.O.Box 119
Selawik Alaska 99770

Selawik team photo

Selawik from across the river

Table of Contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Section 2-The Opportunity
    2A. Dumpsite history
    2B. Effects on Selawik
  3. Section 3-The Solution
    3A. Three paths
    3B. Source reduction
    3C. Landfills/Waste incinerators
    3D. Recycling
  4. Figures
    Figure 1-Snowy Selawik dump-2003
    Figure 2-Sanitary Landfill Diagram
    Figure 3-World Permafrost Map
    Figure 4-Items found in refuse
    Figure 5-Number of landfills in 50 states
    Figure 6-Incinerator Diagram
  5. Works Cited


While it is hard to find a place more wild and undisturbed as the arctic, there are concerns that must be dealt with to make sure that its beauty is maintained. One of the most important of these issues is the handling of solid waste. For too long arctic communities have relied on practices such as open dumpsites and unregulated burning that have only compounded and delayed the solution of how to rid our communities of solid waste. While villages in the arctic pose several problems that are unique to such climates, such as the presence of permafrost and limited disposal sites (Mac Arthur, 1997), they also offer a chance for our communities to lead the way in reduction of solid waste. The process should begin as the history and the practices of the past are reviewed and discussed in a constructive manner.

Our approach is to offer a solution that involves the use of three paths to end up at one destination. Only through the incorporation of alternate solutions may a lasting and real solution be obtained concerning solid waste reduction. ( Our plan includes the implementation of source reduction, a school wide recycling program, and a strong solid waste disposal plan. All of these ideas must be carefully put into place and a strong follow up implemented.

Section 2–The Opportunity

2A. Dumpsite history

The native village of Selawik, Alaska is located just a few miles above the Arctic Circle. It is about 70 miles southeast of Kotzebue, at the mouth of the Selawik River, where it empties into Selawik Lake. The population ranges from 800-950 people, with most people being Inupiaq. Selawik is a very interesting place, with two bridges and the roads made up of boardwalks due to swampy lowlands, and while it is hard to find a more beautiful place to live, the arctic weather and remoteness can make even the simplest of chores difficult. No chore is more difficult than the disposal of solid waste.

The people of Selawik much like most other bush villages take their solid waste to an open dumpsite (Figure 1) less than a mile away from town to the south. The waste is hauled either with an ATV or snow machine along with a trailer or sled that is attached. Materials found at the dump range from cardboard boxes to run down snow machines and everything in between. While conditions have improved in Selawik concerning solid waste due to the installation of a sewer treatment plant, there are still a multitude of items that are clogging up our tiny landfill and leaching out into the environment.

In the early 1960s landfills became an important tool to help rid communities of waste. The most common type of landfill was the open dump. These dumps were soon banned in 1969 to help reduce air pollution caused by the burning of waste at these dumps. ( The idea of Sanitary landfills (Figure 2) was created in response to these concerns, but soon even this solution began to show a few "leaks". By design, landfills have three main levels, a cover, solid waste, and a liner. Problems can develop when the cover allows water to leak into the interior. Once this occurs the formation of leachate is not far behind. Leachate forms as water and garbage mix to form a watery toxin. This toxin then is held inside the landfill until a leak develops. Once a leak occurs this substance is then released into the environment. In response to this problem, sanitary landfills are designed with leachate recovery systems to collect this waste. (

The Selawik dump today is not much different that the ones that were constructed in the early sixties. As in the sixties there is not much concern for how and what is dumped, and this attitude still exists today in our village. Our dump is surrounded by a poorly constructed fence that had used up its usefulness years ago, there are numerous items (paper, diapers, and pop cans) found on both sides of the fence and throughout town due to a lack of containment and, dogs and other animals scavenge for items throughout the dump.

While Selawik may be concerned about the effects our open dump may cause, we may be fortunate that we can now look to improvements in landfill construction that may reduce the problems that solid waste may pose. The big problem faced by Selawik and other villages that hope to construct such a site is our climate and the presence of permafrost. Permafrost is frozen ground naturally occurring with a temperature of about 0°C for two or more years. Permafrost is everywhere in the Arctic, sub-Arctic, and the Antarctica (Figure 3; Worldbook, 2001).This ice makes the construction of a viable landfill difficult. As stated by TDS (2003) one of the main concerns when building a landfill is the assurance of a stable layer of bedrock below the site. In arctic Alaska this may not be easy to find due to the permafrost, so care and patience must be observed.

2B. Effects on Selawik

One of the biggest problems faced by bush villages with open landfills are the health hazards posed by such sites. Included among these hazards is the exposure of citizens to toxins such as POPs ( POP's are man made chemicals that cannot be easily broken down. POPs can be divided into three main categories industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs) and hexachlorobenzene (HCB), industrial waste byproducts such as dioxins and furans, and pesticides such as DDT and chlorane ( None of the toxins are more troublesome than the PCBs that can be leaked from landfills. This toxin, which can easily leach into the water, can be found in such substances as paint, pesticides, and electrical transformers items that can be found in most dumpsites (MacArthur, 2002). Compounding this problem is the process of bioaccumulation. This process occurs as plants accumulate the toxins as they absorb in water. These plants are then eaten by a small fish, which in turn are eaten by a larger fish, by this process a toxin such as PCB can ultimately become up to 70,000's times more potent (Ferl, 1996). PCB's are known to cause irreversible effects on brain development and IQ of infants, as well as causing immune system suppression, disruption of the endocrine function, and certain kinds of cancers ( The proliferation of this substance can be traced back to the consumption by traditional native people of large quantities of marine fish and a reliance on traditional food sources ( While none of this is a direct result of anything natives groups have done, the danger is very real.

Other health dangers posed by open landfills include the proliferation of organic wastes and damage to the human respiratory system. Organisms such as mosquitoes and rats are drawn to food sources at dumps in search of either reproduction sites, mosquitos, or food sources (animals and wild game), these organisms then pass on germs as unwitting carriers ( The effect to the respiratory system can be attributed to the fact that open dumps require a periodic volume reduction that is usually accomplished by an open burn. These burns often lead to such short-term effects as wheezing, watery eyes, "cold" symptoms, pneumonia, and bronchitis and long-term effects that include allergies, sinus infections, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, and cancer. (

Section 3–The Solutions

3A. Three Paths

According to most experts, the goal to reduce waste is not going to be done by choosing one avenue. Instead multiple paths may be the only way to reduce solid waste and in return reduce the effects that storing such waste can have. As noted in the consumers handbook ( there are three main ways to reduce solid waste. They consist of source reduction, recycling, and waste combustion/landfill. Our goal in return is to start to implement each of these concerns within our community.

3B. Source Reduction

Source reduction refers to the practice of design, manufacture, purchase, or use of materials that reduce trash. According to the article on municipal solid waste (, the best and cheapest way of managing wastes is not to produce them in the first place, and the present sense of urgency to relieve pressures on existing disposal facilities has prompted a more serious look at the potential for source reduction strategies. According to the chart Figure 4 shows paper (40.4%), metal (8.5%) and, plastics (8%) are three of the top four items found in trash ( Most advocates estimate that concentrating on source reduction could cut present urban waste streams by about 5% ( These offer a good opportunity for our community to start to reduce solid waste production, and by concentrating on a few strategies such as purchasing products with less packaging, purchasing products in bulk or larger sizes, purchasing more durable products, or maintaining properly, and repairing instead of replacing our solid waste output can shrink considerably. This will require a new awareness by all community members that many of these items we are putting in our landfill can be reused. Figure 5 shows that as a state Alaska has almost twice as many landfills as any other state with almost half the population ( We must start to reverse our practices that have resulted in overcrowded landfills.

3C. Landfills/Waste Incinerators

In our conversation with local officials, it was noted that there are plans for a sanitary landfill in Selawik. According to Raven Sheldon (pers. comm.), the local official responsible for the project, plans are being made to clean up our existing open dump and also to begin construction on a local sanitary dump once the budget is approved. Sheldon (pers.comm.) stated that Selawik is being looked at as a pioneer, and that great opportunities are here for our village. Among the changes that may take place is a "pay as you throw" fee for use of the landfill. As stated by Foltz (2000), such practices can result in a considerable reduction in the amount of waste that is produced by individuals. On the average, when a "pay as you throw" system is put in place, the amount of garbage added to landfills decreased by 40% and recycling increased by 126% (Foltz, 2000). These numbers would fit in well in Selawik.

Waste incinerators (Figure 6) are another option that must be considered. These facilities not only burn refuse, thereby reducing its volume by 80-90%, but also capture the heat of combustion in the form of electricity or process steam (, and while waste incinerators are often seen as an unpopular solution, advances have been made that may offer hope. In Quinhagak, an Alaskan village located on the Bering Sea, a new technology was used to help burn solid waste. Mac Arthur (1997) stated that this incinerator was able to reduce solid waste to 1% of the input when used to reduce medical waste, and it also offers promise in other areas as well. The concerns that must be addressed when using incineration are production of toxic ash and the release of contaminants into the air. It should be understood however, that this unit is not the only component of a good waste reduction program, and such technology must be used in accordance with other methods to get real and lasting reduction of waste. Care must be taken to avoid the dangers associated with incinerators. As noted by Boehlecke (2002) even though only 2% of waste is disposed by incineration, there is a real concern among the public concerning the potential health effects posed by burning of waste. Bosch (2000) noted that in a bio-monitoring study done to assess the effects of waste incineration, external contamination to people was minimal, but levels of toxins were present in soil, air, and even cow's milk, which suggest potential problems for communities, concerns that must be addressed in Selawik due to our reliance on traditional foods. High among these concerns are dioxins, a chemical whose name is often shortened to (TDDD). This group includes several POPs including PCBs ( The largest producer of these dioxins are waste incinerators. This occurs due to incomplete combustion, as the high temperatures needed to destroy dioxins may not be reached (850°C to 1000°C (, however, Timmons (2001) points out that new technology may help rural communities overcome the waste incinerator dilemma. Leading the way to cleaner burning is ARI technologies. They have developed a thermochemical treatment unit (TCCU) that allows for complete combustion of most products. These items can then be place safely in a sanitary landfill within the community (Timmons, 2001). A technology that should be investigated by our community.

3D. Recycling

This final part of our pathway may be the most accessible to us as students. This would include the plan to start a recycling program at our school. In our interview with Raven Sheldon (pers. comm), it was pointed out that there are opportunities for us to reduce waste in our school. As shown in Figure 3, the largest percent of solid waste is paper which makes up over 40% of all solid waste, with aluminum cans not that far behind at eight percent. Our biggest obstacle to tackling this problem is student apathy. As noted by Mac Arthur (1997) changes that are new and perceived to be less convenient such as the sorting of garbage are slow to be embraced, and care must be taken to overcome apathy. As in the recycling manual for New Jersey schools (Association of New Jersey Recyclers, 1999), our program will start with the building of a school committee to begin implementation of our program. This step is crucial in that it is important to build a consensus among the school students and staff concerning recycling while also building a program, which is viable and self-sustaining. Our first task once we have assembled a team would be to take a waste audit. As stated in the manual (Association of New Jersey Recyclers,1999), you first must understand what is in the waste stream so policies and programs can align to these needs.

Our committee must also explore the opportunities that grants can offer to new forming recycling organizations. As stated by the Alaska legal resource center ( grants of up to $2,000 can be awarded to help fund the reduction of waste in areas of need. While this is a good starting point, as a group we must continue to develop ideas that meet the solid waste disposal of our village. These can include ideas such as class drives for collection of aluminum cans, Poster contests, and development of a community questionnaire to help us better understand the waste disposal patterns of our community. Goals that all of us look forward to tackling head-on. While it is clear that our goal to reduce the solid waste output of our rual community is one that will take years to accomplish, it is also clear that with good planning and proper use of resources it can be realized.


Figure 1.

Fig. 1, Snowy Selawik dump

Snowy Selawik dump, 2003

Figure 2.

Fig. 2, Sanitary landfill diagram

Sanitary Landfill Diagram

Figure 3.

Fig. 3, World permafrost map

World Permafrost Map

Figure 4.

Fig. 4, Garbage in United States

Items found in refuse in the United States

Figure 5.

Fig. 5, Number of landfills in each state

Number of landfills in 50 states

Figure 6.

Fig. 6, Incinerator Diagram

Incinerator Diagram

Works Cited

Alaska Legal Resource Center "Landfills Located on Permafrost" (12/8/ 2003)

Alaska Legal Resource Center waste reduction and recycling awards for schools. Dec 11, 2003

Association of New Jersey Recyclers: Recycling manual for New Jersey Schools. 1999

Belada, M.J., Bosch, A., Gadea, E., Huici, A., Gonzalez, C.A., Kogeninas, M., Papke, O. July 2000. Biomonitoring study of people living near or working at a municipal waste incinerator before and after two years of operation. 1-11.

Boehlicke, B. A., Hazucha M.J., Rhodes, V., Southwicke, K., Degnan, D., And Shy, C.M. Characterization of spirometric function in residents of three comparison communities and of three communities located near waste incinerators in North Carolina. March-April 2002.

Bosch, A., Bleda M. J. Gonzalez C. A., Kogevinas, M., e Gadea E., Huici, A., Papke O. (July, 2000). Biomonitoring Study of People Living near or Working at a Municipal Solid-Waste Incinerator Before and After Two Years of Operation. Archives of Environmental Health.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC): Contaminants in Alaska…Is America at risk? Dec 11, 2003.

Envirosense "Fact Sheet: Case Study: Recycling Program Operated By a Non-Profit Organization" (12/11/2003).

EPA: The Consumers Handbook for Reducing Solid Waste.

EPA: Landfills. 11/21/2003

Ferl, R.J., Sanders, G.P., and Wallace, R.A. Biology the science of Life. 4th Edition. Harper Collins College publishers.

Folz, D.H. and Giles, J.G. Municipal Experience with "Pay as you throw" Policies: Findings from a national survey. 2000.

Generations 7 "Addressing Village Environmental Issues For The Future Generations Of Rural Alaska" 11/21/2003.

TDS. Liners and leachate systems. 12/02/03.

MacArthur, C., Advances being made in Cold climate Solid Waste Remediation. Insight 97 edition.

NY State Department of environmental Conservation: Landfill Covers.

Pesticide Action Network North America: PCB's and pesticides found in Yu'pik people of Saint Lawrence Island. 12/09/2003

Sheldon, Raven: Personal interview. Environmental department. Selawik Alaska. P.O.Box 51 Selawik Alaska. 99770

Timmons, D. M. Destruction of PCB contaminated soil and asbestos in the Arctic. WM'01 conference. (Feb 25-Mar. 1, 2001)

World Book 2001. permafrost (2001 ed., vol.15.) (2001). Chicago: World Book Inc.

World health organization: Fact sheet 225-dioxins and their effect on human health. 2/03/04.

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