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Story Last modified at 6:13 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why, I ask yuh, do we trash Alaska?
Mountain Echos

By Frank E. Baker

If I had a dollar for every pound of trash I've picked up over the years along the Glenn Highway, I'd be fully retired and living a life of luxury on a South Pacific island. The perennial emergence of garbage from Anchorage to Eagle River is maddening, despicable, an affront to the senses and an insult to the natural beauty around us.

photo:Opinion

Frank E. Baker picks up trash along the roads of Eagle River. It's a seemingly neverending springtime chore.
Photo courtesy Frank E. Baker

And if I had a dollar for every word I've written about this subject over the years I'd be even wealthier. But thousands of words and thousands of people on cleanup patrol each spring and a relatively tough littering law don't seem to do any good. Littering in Alaska is punishable by fines up to $1,000, and only a couple of states such as Oregon and Massachusetts have stiffer fines. But the trash just keeps coming, year after year.

Municipal authorities have concluded that the bulk of refuse along our roadways comes from vehicles with improperly covered loads. That makes sense. It would take a lot of people tossing garbage out car windows to generate the amount of trash we pick up each year – in 2010 more than 3.6 million pounds. That's 7.5 pounds per person in the Municipality of Anchorage alone.

A substantial portion of the garbage comes from improperly sealed garbage cans during wind storms. Some have theorized it comes from a mythical, maniacal Trash Fairy that roams the highway in the wee hours.

So on my recent trash pickup session, about 2½ hours along the northbound Glenn Highway near the weigh station, I wasn't so sure the rubbish came from uncovered loads. For about one-quarter mile I encountered a scattering of family photos—all from the same family—with a lovely white-colored cat. The back of the photos had their first and last names, but I won't embarrass them here. Likewise, I won't list other names on old bank statements and drug prescriptions that I found along with several articles of clothing.

There seemed to be a preponderance of McDonalds-type containers. It made me wonder why covered truck loads would have this type of garbage. Don't people usually eat the meals at the restaurant or take it with them in their cars? If they did bother to take the leftover McDonalds containers and cups home, wouldn't they put them in their trashcan for collection, rather than place in a truck load bound for the landfill?

The area I picked up was unusually dense with relatively new garbage.

You see, after years of doing this I'm able to discern the old from the new. I even probed the woods a ways to stem what I call "garbage creep." This close to the Anchorage Landfill off of Hiland Drive, there is a possibility some of it came from the dump during windstorms. If that's the case, landfill officials need to figure out how to keep trash where it belongs.

Also, this close to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, I was surprised that a few young soldiers, among the thousands stationed there, didn't already clean the area.

Technology to solve problem

What's needed, I've come to believe, is better enforcement of our littering laws, perhaps even spiking the fine for first offense up to $10,000. But enforcement is very difficult—our police are spread thin as it is. So as a favor to the police and everyone, I've come up with a method to catch the culprits. Like many remedies, it relies on technology.

First, every vehicle licensed in the state of Alaska would be assigned a bar code, similar to those on merchandise we buy at the store. The code would be mounted (attractively and stylishly) in a conspicuous location on each vehicle. Second, sensors would be mounted on light poles along the Glenn, along with radar units. The radar would detect garbage flying off the vehicles and the offending vehicle would be instantly identified by the bar code. I'm not sure how expensive this project would be, but law enforcement agencies would be certain to find other applications and benefits.

This draconian (and admittedly fanciful) measure could have a sunset clause if it was determined that drivers could learn the proper way of loading their trucks. The solid-waste disposal folks could even teach a truck-loading class that would show people the challenging intricacies of using a tarp and bungee cords. They could produce a manual with complex truck loading instructions such as: "If you have light Styrofoam packing material and wooden boards, place the Styrofoam material in a bag and place it beneath the heavier boards."

Across Texas they have a slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas" that firmly sets the tone for how the state's residents feel about littering. The slogan is clearly visible on freeway signage. Alaska should get more firmly behind its "Don't Trash Alaska" program, from law enforcement folks to the Municipality of Anchorage to chambers of commerce to private citizens. Who knows, we might make some inroads into the reprehensible riot of revolting rubbish that repeatedly rears its repulsive head – year after year.

If my suggestions sound like acts of desperation, it's because they are.

Nothing seems to work – the garbage marches on, and we keep picking it up. My back is getting tired.

Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.