Future Tense

How a Low-Tech Solution Helped Anchorage, Alaska’s Gardeners

Sometimes buckets beat apps.

Master Sgt. Linda Flores, Tech. Sgts. Shawana Harris and Skye Benitez, and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Deasy, 944th Force Support Squadron members, battled with mosquitoes and the cold as they weeded the East Garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage, Alaska.
Master Sgt. Linda Flores, Tech. Sgts. Shawana Harris and Skye Benitez, and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Deasy weed the east garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage. Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by U.S. Air Force Photo by Capt. Elizabeth Magnusson.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind.

You might not think of Anchorage, Alaska—where the shortest days of the year involve less than six hours of sunlight—as a place that loves to garden. But in Anchorage, people take their brief, intense summertime seriously. This is the window of time between what locals call breakup (spring thaw) and freeze up (back to the ice ages) goes from about May to September.

“If you haven’t been here before, you don’t realize,” said resident Harry Deuber.* “If people are not out fishing on the weekends, they are home gardening. It’s a real popular pastime, gardening, after being cooped up all winter.” During summer months, functional daylight covers as much as 22 hours of the day. This makes for an intense growing season. “We grow fabulous fruits and vegetables, trees, flowers—many people don’t know that we have a great climate for so many of these things,” says Deuber.

Alaska is the largest state in the country—twice the size of Texas, larger than all but a handful of countries. But Anchorage does not have space for trash. It is an urban outcrop built in a bowl surrounded by natural wonders on all sides: inlets on the west, north, and south, and mountains on the east. It has one landfill for all 300,000 city residents. The city’s Solid Waste Services estimates the landfill will fill by 2050 without strategic waste-reduction interventions. “We’re concerned with keeping it as long as possible,” says Suzanna Caldwell, recycling coordinator at Solid Waste. “Twenty-five percent of all municipal solid waste is organic.”

A partial solution to that problem should be composting, but that’s tricky in Anchorage: There wasn’t enough compost to go around, there was nowhere easy to get it, and low temperatures extend the time it takes for residents to try to create their own. The city had a compost program once, only for it to close down in ignominy in 2011 after a series of financial scandals and improprieties that undermined the public’s trust in government. (As with priests and taxi drivers, government services are often judged by the lowest common denominator.)

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz found out how much his residents cared about the issue early in his first term. He had stopped by the annual Master Gardeners Conference in April 2016 to give a keynote. As he is wont to do, during the question and answer period, he didn’t just respond to people’s inquiries—he asked them what suggestions they had as experts to increase capacity to garden and grow, and how he could help make it happen. The response: Could the mayor help get the city a source of compost?

Berkowitz passed the challenge on to his Solid Waste Services team. They could have specced an “Uber for manure” or some other big, splashy, tech-heavy project. But Anchorage believed that starting small would be better: It could upgrade a service that had once failed, and in doing so also prove to the public that the department, administration, and government could succeed in providing the service. Solid Waste Services employee Travis Smith came up with a way to do it: What if Solid Waste passed out community buckets? People could get one free, fill it up with food remains, and bring it to the city landfill. There, a resident could exchange their bucket for one filled with compost.

The idea was exciting for several reasons. In addition to being a test case to help build trust in government, it could also support sustainability and safety. Most of Alaska’s food comes up by barge or plane from the Lower 48, making it much more expensive—and Anchorage residents vulnerable. “If we had a natural disaster, if we were cut off from transportation, these are serious concerns for us,” Caldwell said. “Growing food is a quality of life issue. It is also a resilience issue. We have to be prepared for shocks to the system.”

Just two months later, Solid Waste launched the Community Compost program, right in time for the 2016 summer growing season. (If you’ve never worked in government services, let me assure you: Two months is amazingly fast.) In the first year, Solid Waste provided 250 buckets for residents, and there was just one drop-off and pickup location, at the same spot as the landfill. But the landfill is 10 miles away from where most people in Anchorage live. Residents wanted something closer. And they wanted more buckets.

Solid Waste took notes on the feedback. In 2017, its second year, it moved the compost pickup point to the center of town and added a second location. It also expanded the kinds of buckets you could use, letting people use buckets of their own, and allowed people who didn’t register for the program to drop off scraps and pick up compost. These strategic small changes increased the effectiveness of the service provided, while also ensuring the department would have the resources to deliver support.

Like the bucket itself, reducing Anchorage’s organic waste has had an effect far larger than appears at first glance. “It’s amazing how much fruit and vegetable debris one household produces over a week,” said Anchorage resident Cheryl Chapman. “During the compost program, my trash takeout is down to one partially filled bag per month. … [I]n winter, it’s a bag of refuse a week.”

She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the city’s upgrade—or seeing the impact. In the first year, 250 participants collected almost 7 tons of waste. In the second year, participation increased to 700 registered participants (plus an unknown number of unregistered ones) and collected 22 tons of food scraps. On top of that, a pilot to compost yard waste with 122 houses yielded an additional 22 tons of waste. The program also started networking into the city’s broad resilience strategy, the “Anchorage: Welcoming and Resilient” program.

This month, the program started its third year, with impatient residents peppering Solid Waste’s social media in the weeks leading up to the program opening asking when composting would begin. Solid Waste is already considering additional pilots. They’ll test curbside compost next using 96-gallon roll carts.

“There’s … a small-d democratization that occurs when people are participating in things that the community does,” says Mayor Berkowitz. “That restores trust, and that restores the sense of community that’s not only important for making sure a community is resilient, but also socially healthy.”

Building trust in government to deliver services can be challenging. There’s some reason for that: Government’s historical strategy for procuring “solutions” to upgrade government services is to go big, which far too often translates to cumbersome, slow, inefficient, and ineffective. That’s why efforts like Anchorage’s bucket program have become increasingly important. They demonstrate that we can shift structural government approaches if we do so in a thoughtful, collaborative way.

Now, that small effort is growing—just like hundreds of Anchorage gardens.

Correction, June 13, 2018: This article originally misidentified Harry Deuber as Henry Deuber.