Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:58 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's assume more responsibility for our trash

By Terri Mach

I'd like to thank the Homer News for thoughtfully covering the important issue of garbage. According to Kenai Peninsula Borough records, our Cosmic Hamlet landfill bales and buries nearly 44,000 pounds of household waste each day. This figure should motivate all of us to be more thoughtful about our personal household waste management habits. We must also advocate for a new transfer sight that encourages users to recycle and makes recycling less labor intensive for landfill operators.


During a recent visit to a small Vermont town, I had an opportunity to see community commitment to reducing and recycling. The disposal fee for each bag of household waste was $2.25. At the end of our 12-day visit, we walked through a well designed transfer facility where we sorted and deposited our recyclables, then paid $2.25 to deposit one small bag of real trash that our family of four had generated.

We sorted recyclables onto trays that were then tilted to slide materials into large containers below in the baling building. Landfill operators were on site to guide the process. The operator tipped the tray after ensuring that the user had sorted properly — no caps on bottles and no bags or boxes carelessly dumped in with aluminum.

Can we do this in Homer?

Our landfill already accepts for recycling the same materials as the Vermont station. Because our facility was not designed for recycling, our landfill operators work hard to make this available. They continually empty fish totes of plastic (by hand) to make room for the next user and they remove caps, bags and wet boxes, and they resort items that were carelessly tossed in the wrong bins. They lack adequate staff to monitor recycling because they are busy baling and burying unsorted waste.

Mr. Maryott, the borough's solid waste director, states that "a new transfer station may result in increased recycling capabilities." I believe a new facility should be designed not only for increased capability, but also for increased incentive to recycle. Perhaps this means accepting at no cost properly sorted recyclables and charging per bag or per pound for household waste.

Some fear that fees would cause people to avoid the transfer station and instead dispose of trash improperly along roadsides. Sadly, some already do this. I believe the majority of Alaskans would do the right thing to support sustainable management of waste and preserve the environment that is our home.

Some opponents to recycling hold a misconception that sorted recyclables are just buried in our landfill. Mr. Maryott clarified that all materials gathered at Homer landfill are indeed recycled or, in the case of glass, reused in place of purchased gravel.

Others believe that recycling doesn't make sense in Alaska because shipping costs exceed the value of materials. These opponents fail to consider the high cost involved with securing permits, burying waste and monitoring landfills. What costs will we face in the future when well monitoring turns up toxic leaching from our landfills? What happens when our spaces are full?

Mr. Maryott has advised us that opening a new landfill is cost prohibitive. Other opponents suggest that recycling takes too much time so people won't do it.

After three weeks, I deposited one medium-sized bag of household waste onto the conveyer belt at our landfill. Cardboard, mixed paper, fiberboard, aluminum, glass, tin, and plastics No. 1 and No. 2 were sorted into the labeled bins. All compostable food scraps fed my garden, and the fine Homer News articles started the woodstove this morning. Recycling requires little effort once habits are established.

Borough leaders are working hard to secure funding to close and monitor our landfill and build a transfer facility to take its place. Mr. Maryott urged the public to become involved.

Here is our chance to do it right. Let's not only advocate for funds, let's also advocate for a facility that encourages each of us to assume more personal responsibility for reducing household waste because garbage isn't "gone" when we toss it onto the conveyor belt at our landfill.

Perhaps a more challenging piece of the equation is reducing. This may call for more drastic lifestyle changes, yet may offer benefits beyond saving space in our landfill. If we choose fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and minimally processed foods as the staple part of our diets and consume fish and other local foods as much as possible, we can reduce our contribution to the daily 44,000 pounds of household waste baled in Homer.

More important, by consuming fresh foods we may reduce unnecessary medical bills and enjoy improved health. John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitches to everything in the universe." We should all be mindful of what we put into our bodies and into our landfill because household waste isn't "gone" when we toss it onto the conveyor belt at Homer landfill.

Terri Mach is a gardener, passionate recycler and teacher-director at Head Start, who wholeheartedly believes that we need to get children started out on the right foot with everything from eating healthy food to being good stewards of Planet Earth. She has lived in Homer about 11.5 years and in Alaska about 42 years.