Copper River Record May 2017
By Robin Mayo
Moseying along in a scenic ditch on a sunny day, picking up the flotsam and jetsam of civilization that has accumulated over the winter, doesn’t take much brain power. Anything unnatural goes into the bright yellow bag if it is small, or gets hauled up to the roadside if it is large. Clean aluminum cans go into the smaller bag at my belt for recycling. One needs to watch your step, stay out of the traffic, and be wary of hazardous litter, but aside that the mind is free to wander. The yearly ritual of clean-up day, in which I have participated nearly every year since I was a young Girl Scout, always brings out mixed feelings of dismay and pride in my fellow humans.
On Saturday morning several friends of WISE got together for our yearly ritual. First we meet at the Willow Lake pullout. We’d noticed it was a mess after a winter of heavy use, and since we visit the spot regularly with paying guests from our Copper Country Discovery Tour, we always pay special attention to cleaning it up. This year we got a wonderful surprise, someone had beaten us to the job, and the area was looking great. We ranged along the roadside to the north, and found enough to fill several bags, including countless bits of Styrofoam beadboard. Then we headed up to our adopted section of highway at mile 105. The four of us were able to make quick work of scouring both sides, filling another several bags.
The sheer volume and variety of garbage found along Alaska’s roadsides is astonishing, and picking it up on foot, leaning down for every gritty piece, can make a person cranky. Certainly some of this mess got here accidentally, blown out of a vehicle in a moment of carelessness. Accidents happen, but most of the trash seems to have been thrown out deliberately.
One of the things I noticed on clean-up day was how much of the litter was related to less-than-healthy things. Cigarette butts, beer cans, and junk food packaging make up a huge proportion of the trash. Driving once in rural Arizona, we noticed that the roadsides were glittering with broken glass. It seemed strange until we discovered the highway led to a large liquor store, undoubtedly the only one for many miles. The cause and the effect are not always so clearly linked, and in this case it was a sobering reminder to drive very carefully! Our Alaskan trash included pop bottles, grape flavored vodka bottles, and brake fluid bottles. (Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to drinking brake fluid? Don’t worry about him, he can stop any time!)
Biodegradable items like paper and wood were already breaking down after seasons of rain, sun, and snow. But those aluminum cans? They won’t be going away for hundreds of years, and the Styrofoam would have been there for thousands of years. It might have broken into progressively smaller beads, but those are worse for the environment as they can be mistaken for food by animals.
But in spite of the mess, and the dismay at the carelessness that caused it, at the end of Clean-Up day I’m proud of our community, and the good spirits that reside here. Neighbors were out patrolling, yellow bags piled up, and spirits were high even at the landfill, where all that garbage goes to rest. Copper Basin Sanitation was accepting roadside trash with no fee, crews were cleaning up the area, and the grill was warming up for a cookout.
A warm Thanks to everyone who picked up trash, and continues to clean up our roadsides. I’d love to go out some spring and find nothing but a few rogue windblown bits of trash, but until that day the ritual of Clean-Up Day is a great way to celebrate our community and take care of our beautiful home.
WISE board members Paul Boos, Janelle Eklund, and Gay Wellman with the truckload of garbage they helped collect. Robin Mayo Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.