My turn: We did it with bears; Now it's time to tackle garbage

Posted: Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bravo McKie Campbell. The commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had the courage to tell Anchorage citizens and city government that garbage bears are a local problem that needs to be solved locally. He added that Juneau has shown how. Thank you, McKie, for reminding us that we have been able to tackle a distressing issue and come up with a reasonable, workable solution.

For those who may have forgotten, not so long ago we were killing up to a dozen bears a year because they presented a danger while they foraged through our unsecured garbage cans and Dumpsters. Local law enforcement was spending more time responding to bear sightings than to traditional public safety issues. No one was happy to see bears killed just because they were being bears, doing what bears do. Instead of whining about public servants not doing their job, a few citizens decided it was our job instead and began working to solve the problem.

Friends of Recycling came forward with a grant submission to the Alaska Conservation Foundation and began a media campaign to encourage us to take responsibility and secure our garbage cans. The "No Garbage Bears" signs are still posted on buses and in public venues to remind us that personal commitment is the basis of community action. Think about it, the No Garbage Bear logo is as familiar to Juneauites as Smokey telling us "Only you can prevent forest fires."

Now, Juneau faces another crisis. Our method of disposing of solid waste, burying it in our local landfill, cannot be sustained for much longer. The incinerator has been shut down and we can all breathe a bit easier, but what used to be burned, now must be buried. Almost every city and town in the Lower 48 and Canada (and throughout the developed world) has had to face this same crisis sometime during the last 40 years. Welcome to the 20th century, Juneau.

There are many sound alternatives to burying our waste, or at least a great percentage of it. Clearly, comprehensive recycling, removing as much as possible from the waste stream and returning it to economic use, is the foundation of a modern solid waste utility. Again, the Friends of Recycling have been there for the long haul, working first to get the city to support recycling operations at the landfill (for which Waste Management is paid from our water and sewer bill) and then to expand the types of materials that we can recycle.

In October, the city will award a new recycling contract. The money is the same but the city would like to see services greatly expanded. Among the alternatives the city will consider are neighborhood drop-off sites (Douglas, Juneau, Valley, Lemon Creek and out the road) and curbside pick-ups. Either or both will go a long way to greatly increase our opportunity to recycle.

Why should we care? If you haven't visited the dump lately, you might want to go out and take a look at the growing mountain of buried waste our community is building. Remember, each of us pays for the building of that mountain and it is a legacy that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Other Northwest communities a fraction of our size, located similar distances from markets, have instituted recycling programs that reduce their waste stream, pay for the operations and save the community money. Towns of our size typically ship to market eight to ten times the volumes now shipped from Juneau by Waste Management.

Recycling is not just about doing the "green thing." It makes dollars and sense. Some 30 years ago the first chief of the Environmental Protection Agency defined pollution as "the inefficient use or waste of natural resources." Inefficient use and waste means costs to the community and to the individual-costs of disposal, costs of clean-up, increased costs for products made from diminishing natural resources. Reduce the waste stream and pay for it by returning once buried resources to the economic mainstream, to be used again and again. The bonus is the creation of new year-round jobs for Juneau.

• Juneau resident Dan Austin is general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and member of a non-profit consortium preparing to bid on the CBJ Recycling Contract.

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