Cruise ships dumped more than 3 million pounds of trash in Juneau last year

The view from the top of Juneau’s landfill in November 2019. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

During the 2019 summer tourism season, cruise ship companies dumped more than 3 million pounds of trash at Juneau’s private landfill.

That’s a concern to some in the community, especially since the local landfill is expected to be full in 20 years.

At a public hearing for the city’s Visitor Industry Task Force in January, Juneau resident Linda Blefgen listed a few of the items taken from cruise ships to the landfill last year.

“Bedding, 200 chairs in September, furniture, slot machines with electronics removed, water ship line and much more,” Blefgen said. “Why do they choose to dump here? Why are they allowed to dump this volume when we have such limited space for our landfill?”

Blefgen said cruise ships dumped 3 million pounds of trash.

And while she wouldn’t share where she got her information, data provided by the City of Borough of Juneau back up her figures — more than 3 million pounds of garbage came off of the ships between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 in 2019.

City Manager Rorie Watt was not happy to learn that cruise ships are regularly dumping trash here. He said he immediately reached out to the industry to ask them to stop.

But there’s not much the city can do beyond that.

“The landfill’s a private operation. The cruise ships are private operations,” Watt said. “We don’t regulate waste, garbage and hauling of garbage. So anything that we’re able to do will be by negotiation with the cruise lines.”

Juneau’s landfill is operated by a Texas-based company called Waste Management.

Last year, that company reported to the city that it accepted 1,534 tons of cruise ship garbage — more than 3.3 million pounds. That’s even more than in 2018, when 830 tons, or 1.8 million pounds, of trash from cruise ships ended up in the landfill. About 30,000 tons of garbage typically go into the landfill each year.

Even though cruise ship waste only makes up less than 5% of the total amount of garbage that went into the landfill in both 2018 and 2019, it’s still waste piling up in a space with a limited lifespan.

In November, landfill manager Eric Vance said Waste Management regularly surveys the area to determine how much space is left.

“Our model tells us we’ve got just over 20 years, and it’s been pretty consistent,” Vance said.

So in the next two decades, Juneau will need an alternative option to dispose of waste.

There’s not a lot of extra space available to just open a new landfill site. Juneau could end up shipping it south like several other Southeast communities.

Vance said when the landfill accepts waste from cruise ship companies, they have to follow the same requirements as anyone else. That means no hazardous waste.

Mike Tibbles with Cruise Lines International Association Alaska said the organization became aware of the increase in dumping last year.

“Right now we’re researching the issue a little bit more amongst our member lines to see which vessels are offloading and how much,” Tibbles said. “We definitely have a goal of trying to reduce that amount as much as we can going forward.”

Tibbles said the majority of trash produced on cruise ships is offloaded in the ports where they start — Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria.

He said his organization is working quickly, but he’s not sure whether there will be time to completely address the issue before next cruise season begins.

Kirby Day is the Juneau director of shore operations for Princess Cruises and Holland America Line. He said the increase in trash coming off the ships is an unintended consequence of trying to reign in air pollution.

“I noticed it in the last couple years, that we were offloading a lot more garbage, both Princess and Holland America ships — and I think the industry in general — because many of the ships lost an incinerator when they went to the scrubber system for emissions,” Day said.

Scrubbers allow cruise ships to filter their exhaust. Many companies have added the systems to their ships in the last few years to meet new federal standards.

But Day said that cut down the space available on board.

“Larger ships and less incinerators means you can incinerate less garbage,” he said, adding that Princess and Holland America are working to significantly cut down or end trash disposal in Juneau.

He said he’s also asked the ship’s hotel departments not to throw out furnishings while in port. Sometimes they donate items locally, like chairs no longer needed on board. But other things, like mattresses, often end up in the landfill.

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