This past winter the trash fairy returned to Anchorage and Eagle River.
And as always, she gleefully deposited tons of refuse along our streets and byways. From May 1 to May 8, thousands of citizens will mount an assault on this miserable, mephitic, malodorous mess, asking themselves the same question over and over: Where does it all come from?
Here’s a number for you: 4 million.
That’s the amount of trash, in pounds, that was collected during one of Anchorage and Eagle River spring cleanups. Four million lbs. of trash could create an impressive structure. According to folks at the Anchorage Landfill, it takes about 950 lbs. of trash to fill a space of one cubic yard. Placed end on end, our one-cubic-yard stack containing four million lbs. of trash would rise more than 1,500 feet—higher than New York’s Empire State Building!
Folks at the landfill estimate that three-fourths of the four million lbs. comes from trucks with improperly covered loads and wind storms blowing garbage from containers that aren’t properly sealed. This leaves roughly one-fourth– that’s about one million lbs.–coming from people either deliberately or accidentally releasing trash in one way or another. The Municipality of Anchorage’s population is about 300,000 and Eagle-River Chugiak’s is about 35,000, so that comes out to an average of roughly 3 lbs. of trash per person.
Mobilizing an army: It takes an army of people to litter up our landscape every year, and it takes another army of folks to clean it. It takes hundreds of businesses and organizations, more than 80 schools, Boy Scouts, thousands of individuals, Anchorage and Eagle River Chambers of Commerce, tens of thousands of plastic trash bags and endless trips to the Anchorage landfill.
But the question that plagues us year after year is: who are the litterers? Do you ever see anyone throwing McDonald Happy Meal containers out of their cars? Do the litterers drive up and down the highways in the wee hours of the morning—2 or 3 a.m., furiously tossing Styrofoam cups and gasoline station receipts from their vehicles?
Several years ago I tried to find out if anyone in the area had ever been arrested for littering.
I talked to a State Trooper who had been with the force quite a few years and he couldn’t recall anyone being apprehended for this offense (AS 46.06.080), which carries a $1,000 fine.
I once tried to get myself cited for littering—definitely before I knew the fine. After picking up trash along the Glenn Highway for several hours, I started throwing stuff back into the ditch– paper plates, beer cans, the ubiquitous McDonald containers. At least two police cars cruised by and didn’t even slow down. I thought maybe someone would give me a citizen’s arrest, but the cars just kept whizzing by. Feeling rather foolish, not an unfamiliar state of mind for me, I shrugged my shoulders and picked up the trash a second time.
On the positive side, I must confess that picking up trash is therapeutic.
It’s good exercise for the lower back, a nice way to get a spring sun tan, and in some kind of cathartic, defiant way, it allows us to boldly let litterers know that no matter how hard they try to mess up our land, we will be back like Arnold Schwarzenegger; jaws set tightly, to clean it up. Junking up our beautiful Alaska countryside is a severe form of aggression, so we cleaner-uppers have to be even more aggressive.
It’s nothing short of war. We might be cleaning up Eagle River and Anchorage for tourists and other visitors, but in the final analysis—we’re waging this war on behalf of ourselves. We know how good our community can look, and there is a genuine pride that runs through our population, from youngsters to oldsters.
I know that by June, our community will look immeasurably better than it looks now. It’s the litter creep of summer and the rest of the year that I worry about. Once we have it clean, maybe we can put forth an extra effort to keep it that way.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.