My Turn: Time to start managing city's waste, not just move it around

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Yesterday I was placing a sandwich into a plastic sandwich bag for today's lunch when I recalled reading recently that, since Waste Management has decided a new incinerator would not be profitable, all of Juneau's garbage is now being piled up at the Lemon Creek dump on the edge of the Juneau wetlands.

Staring at the plastic bag in my hand, I imagined myself hiking out onto the wetlands, sitting down to eat lunch, and, when finished, deliberately leaving the bag on the ground and walking away. I thought, I'd never do that. I remember too well my childhood Girl Scout leader admonishing that when out in nature, always "leave your site better than you found it."

When I had finished wrapping up my sandwich, I went to throw away a plastic cheese wrapper in the garbage can under the kitchen sink. Finding it full, I cinched up the plastic liner's drawstring and placed the full bag near the back door. Suddenly, I imagined myself driving out Egan Drive with a full plastic trash bag, opening my car door at about three mile, and flinging the full bag out alongside the road. I looked at the bulging bag waiting near the back door, then looked down at the new bag in my hand. I did not feel like a very good Scout.

I've been here for the better part of 50 years now and my sense of the community is that few of us would intentionally walk off and leave plastic on the wetlands, or throw a bag of garbage out our car window at Lemon Creek. So shouldn't we be asking ourselves, why are we paying Arrow Refuse and Waste Management to do exactly that?

The answer is, we shouldn't be.

The city has allowed Waste Management to mishandle municipal waste for too long, and the multi-national corporation's latest refusal to install a clean incinerator should be the end of this private utility in Juneau. Let's face it, no one's managing waste in Juneau; we're just paying to have it moved around.

Municipalities frequently opt to handle their own waste disposal precisely because private companies rarely, if ever, are able to operate such a program profitably. As have other cities across the country, Juneau could reduce its solid waste by over 50 percent through municipally managed curbside recycling. The remainder could be incinerated in a city-owned clean incinerator and its residue treated and disposed of in a city-operated landfill located in non-leaching uplands. Much of the cost of municipally operated waste management could be recovered by requiring all households to participate in garbage pick-up (with a low-income fee waivers); imposition of fines for disposal of unseparated recyclables; a raise in the per-can rate for non-recyclables; providing garbage service to cruise ships and possibly other Southeast Alaska communities at a fair market rate; and, if necessary, through raising the sales tax. Many of these ideas were put forward recently by the Mayor's Recycling and Waste Reduction Task Force, but none has yet been acted upon. Municipal waste management may never break even, but neither do other essential services like snow removal or education.

I am so grateful to Friends of Recycling for all their hard work over the years, but it's just not realistic to think that ad hoc volunteer recycling groups or citizen task forces can solve Juneau's garbage emergency. Every day that the city continues to abdicate its responsibility to Waste Management, the pile of garbage in Lemon Creek grows higher.

After tucking my sandwich into the refrigerator, and dumping the full bag of trash into the can in the alley for morning pick-up, I headed over to Foodland to do a little shopping. "Paper or plastic?" asked the bagger. "Neither," I replied. Then, giving her a good old-fashioned Girl Scout salute, I walked away with my arms full of loose groceries, all wrapped in tomorrow's litter.

• Liz Dodd is a freelance editor and proofreader in Juneau.

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