As of this writing they hadn’t found that Malaysian plane in the Indian Ocean.
But you know what they have found?
Garbage. Lots and lots of garbage.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. We humans trail garbage behind us the way fairy tale characters trail breadcrumbs.
Some cultures deal with it better than others.
While visiting my uncle in Tanzania a few years ago, the first night at his house I had to throw away a shampoo bottle or something and I asked him where his wastebasket was.
Turns out he didn’t have one.
“We reuse it or burn it,” he said.
Hard to get your head around not having a convenient trash can to throw garbage in.
We’re American and we like things. Lots of things. We want to have our things. And when we’re done with them, we want to toss them, or their packaging, or whatever other detritus was associated with them, and never think about them again.
The problem is, if we want to live like that — and this is America! We have the right to! — we have to pay the price.
It’s an odd comment on our times that controlling the garbage we pile up everywhere we go is considered a lefty concern. Reuse, recycling, limiting consumption, paying less — they all seem like the quintessential definition of conservative: be less wasteful, pay for your own waste and no one else’s.
That issue is coming to a head in Waterville, where a proposal to have residents pay $2 for garbage bags coupled with curbside recycling has become a huge point of contention.
Residents at a City Council meeting last week angrily told councilors that they can’t afford to pay $2 a bag.
Those familiar with pay-per-bag, also known as pay-as-you-throw, know the philosophy behind it is to actually cut costs for everyone. It forces people to conserve and recycle — the less garbage a person puts in the garbage bag, the less it costs.
Waterville pays about $665,000 a year to throw out its garbage. That’s from the moment a resident drops it by the street to when it’s hauled off to the transfer station.
The city pays Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Oakland $81 per ton.
What’s in those bags?
If the garbage of Waterville is like the rest of the 251 million tons of garbage the U.S. produces every year, it’s a lot of paper, packaging, plastic and yard trimmings — all things that are easily recycled or composted.
City Manager Mike Roy estimates with pay-per-bag and curbside recycling, the city could cut its garbage line item by as much as $350,000. That includes the estimated $70,000 curbside recycling would cost.
By the way, that $81 a ton the city pays now is going up to $120 a ton when PERC stops taking trash in 2018.
Pay-per-bag seems like a bargain compared to that, even for those of us who are math challenged.
Still not convinced?
Look at it a different way.
Take disposable diapers, for instance. They are a microcosm for our attitude towards garbage — they’re expensive to buy. They are briefly used, and used hard. Then they are thrown away.
The average baby uses about 8,000 diapers in his pre-going-like-a-big-boy existence. Depending on the baby’s production, that’s a lot of pounds into the waste stream.
This isn’t to judge those who choose the convenience of disposable diapers, but to point out the reality that those choosing that convenience should be willing to pay for it both on the front end and the back end.
It’s another odd comment on our times that the same society that balks at paying higher taxes to educate “someone else’s kids” is perfectly willing to pay for disposal of that family’s tons of dirty diapers.
We are incensed that “we” are paying for someone with an electronic benefits transfer card to buy a Snickers bar, but we’ll happily pay to dispose of that family’s candy wrappers and all their other garbage, too.
So if the estimated $350,000 a year in savings doesn’t sway you, it seems like this fact should: with pay-per-bag you’re paying more for what you produce than for what the family next door produces.
It’s the perfect fiscally conservative way to dispose of garbage. While there are still overall city costs, everyone is much more responsible for paying for his or her own.
It’s not that the people of Waterville are any better or worse than any other community. Given the opportunity to just dump garbage and not think about it again, anyone would do it.
Think Tanzania’s a perfect example of how to take care of garbage?
Think again. Another striking thing about the country is the amount of plastic bags blowing around and the piles of garbage on the outskirts of the towns.
Over the past decade or so, the global economy has added much to that country’s waste stream that can’t be reused or burned and they have no idea what to do with it.
It’s not that we’re more evolved, it’s just that we’ve figured out how to move our piles around so we don’t have to look at them.
They go to the transfer station, then somewhere else. Some of our bottles and foam cups and disposable diapers and cigarette filters even end up in one of those garbage islands in the ocean — they’re so many of them, they’re now giving them names. But unless we check it out on the Internet, we don’t have to see them.
But we still have to pay, one way or another.
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal. Email her at [email protected]. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.