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Disgusting but rewarding: getting up close to Anchorage's trash

Rick Sinnott
Loren Holmes photo

You’ve undoubtedly heard the political slogan about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. The Haves and the Have-nots. A similar rule of thumb applies to litter. Ninety-seven percent of the population seems to throw stuff out of their car windows when they're done with it. Three percent of us pick it up.

I have a hunch that the people who pick up litter aren’t the ones who threw it on the ground. If trash was money, the 3 percent would be very rich indeed.

Trashy rite of spring

In what has become a well-established rite of spring in Alaska's largest city of Anchorage, members of my community council, including my wife and I, participated in the annual citywide cleanup sponsored by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Trash accumulates under the snow for six months every winter. When the snow is gone, roadsides look like what’s left after a municipal snow dump melts. Trashy.

Some of us pick it up. It’s actually kind of fun. The weather around the middle of May is typically about as good as it gets in Anchorage: sunny, 60 degrees, a little breeze, few mosquitoes. It’s good to do something productive with friends on a beautiful day.

According to J.J. Harrier, the Chamber’s vice president and communications director, more than 10,000 people participated in the citywide cleanup this spring. He won’t know the final tonnage collected for a week or two, but he said volunteers collected 400 tons of trash last spring and he anticipated more would be found this year.

Harrier was especially jazzed about the participation of young people. Anchorage-area schools entered in the Super Sweeper program fielded 3,300 students from 74 schools on May 12. The students collected 3,600 bags of trash. The school with the most trash was SAVE High School (203 bags), followed by Chugiak High School (183 bags) and two elementary schools -- Oceanview and Gladys Wood -- that collected 150 bags each.

My community council picks up trash along 10 or 11 miles of road. It takes a couple of hours, which allows me plenty of time to think about just what it is that litterbugs are trying to tell us: that they don’t give a damn. After many years of gathering up the junk people toss out of their cars, I have constructed a vivid image of the type of person who would do such a thing.

Unhealthy, unthinking, unhip

A lot of the trash comes from fast food restaurants. Cardboard and Styrofoam hamburger boxes, greasy French fry sleeves, and condiment packets, for instance. But most of the food-related items we find seem to be large soft drink containers with plastic lids and straws and “to go” espresso coffee cups. Based on this, I imagine the anonymous litterbugs are probably unhealthy and possibly obese. They are certainly jittery. They can’t wait to get home to throw a container in the garbage can. It has to go out the window, right now.

Cigarette butts outnumber any other item, even on a rural road where tossing a butt out the window onto a pile of dry leaves could conceivably ignite a conflagration. Until recently, all vehicles were equipped with ashtrays. In new vehicles ashtrays have been converted into spare change drawers. Sometimes at a wide spot in the road we find the entire contents of an automotive change drawer scattered on the gravel. All the cigarette butts raises the odds that litterbugs are “probably” unhealthy to borderline sickly. And for flaunting the risk of starting a wildfire and the proven link between smoking and lung cancer, let’s add unthinking to the list of litterbug characteristics.

The other category of trash that seems to be ejected from a lot of moving vehicles is beer cans. That confirms “unthinking” as a personality flaw for litterbugs. We might as well add “scofflaw” or “criminal” to the list as well because it’s illegal to drink and drive, and I don’t think litterbugs are drinking the beer at home, carrying the empty can out to their car, then tossing it out the window a few miles down the road.

Most of the beer cans found along the highway are Coors or Busch. So the typical litterbug is an American. There aren’t any foreigners who drink those brands are there? I’ve never found an imported beer bottle on the side of the road. Not saying it doesn’t happen. Most of the beer came in cans, but we found bottles too. Most of the bottles were singles, but it’s not unusual to find a whole six pack, even a 12 pack of empties in the ditch. How does that happen? They drink a six pack, sliding the empties carefully back in the carrier, then toss them all out at once because they are neat freaks? Some cans and bottles are tossed 20 or 30 feet into the woods. As I pick them up, I’m thinking "strong arm, weak mind."

We usually find one or more full bags of household garbage in the ditch. Sifting through the bag, it’s not unusual to discover names, addresses, phone numbers, and how much the litterbug owes the credit card company. Wait a second while I pencil “not very smart” on the personality profile.

Last year the citywide cleanup amassed 400 tons of garbage. That’s a lot of cigarette butts and aluminum beer cans.

The eww factor

Let’s be frank. Sometimes, when you are closing your fingers around other people’s trash, you get a flash of the eww or ick factor. I’m talking about disgust, the emotion that is studied by disgustologists

I’m a wildlife biologist. For 30 years I handled plenty of dead things, including a large number of extremely dead things such as carcasses you smell long before you see. The worst carcasses consist of a carpet of hair, a flattened cameo of an animal that, when poked with a long stick, boils with maggots, more maggots than hair. On a cool autumn morning, steam rises from a carcass in this late stage of decomposition, steam from the heat generated by bacterial action and the friction of uncountable squirming maggots. Okay, I just had to get that image off my chest.

During citywide cleanup dead dogs are not uncommon. Typically, they aren’t killed by a motor vehicle, as you might expect. A special brand of litterer will kill their pet, drive it to the end of the road or a convenient embankment, and discard it. One old German shepherd had been treated by a veterinarian because it had IV needles taped to at least two legs. I suspect the dog was euthanized during a veterinary exam and the owners opted to take it home for “burial.” It was still wrapped in a blanket, at the bottom of the embankment, so you know the owners cherished their beloved pet right up until the moment they kicked it off the road shoulder.

I’ve also found a few dead pets in plastic garbage bags. Last year I found the remains of a cow. Head, hide, bones, entrails, and a fair amount of meat. As I confessed, dead animals don’t elicit disgust anymore. But people being people, far more disgusting things are discarded along the road.

Underwear bombers and sex toys

The winner this year -- I think the other participants agreed even though most were struck speechless -- was an adult diaper. Used, of course. This is why veterans of the citywide cleanup wear latex gloves. The diaper was soggy, and algae had stained the absorbent lining chartreuse. My question is this: is it safer to remove your diaper while the car is moving or to park the car on the road (because there was no shoulder) on the blind side of a curve while you remove it? Because I don’t think the person peed in the diaper at home, carried the soggy disposable garment to the car, and then tossed it out the window a few miles down the road.

The all-time winner for our road, found several years ago, was a sex toy. I’m no shrinking violet. I was in the Marine Corps, and I’ve been around the block enough times to have seen a wide variety of sex toys. Photos, of course. But I’ve never seen any device invented for self abuse equal to this one. It was a clear plastic receptacle about the size of a lunch box with reasonably accurate models of a vagina and anus on opposite ends. The receptacle boasted a convenient handle for carrying it to and from a vehicle. Or, in this instance, for tossing it into the woods next to a pullout. Love ‘em and leave ‘em.

This would seem to prove for once and all that some men are incapable of committing to a relationship. Even with an inanimate object.

Dante didn’t mention litterbugs

Dante’s Inferno didn’t list litterbugs in its graphic depiction of the kinds of people who end up in one of the nine circles of Hell. Based on Dante’s near-encyclopedic catalog of sinners I figure the souls of litterbugs are assigned to the Fourth Circle, where those who led an avaricious and wasteful life on Earth spend the rest of eternity rolling weights back and forth to one another.

The citywide cleanup spans only two weekends, but litterbugs never stop. A week after our community council collected all the trash along the road, my wife and I found a neat pile of garbage perched on the shoulder a few hundreds yards from a designated picnic area. The pile contained seven bottles of Alaskan White ale, three large plastic bottles of Pepsi, eight cans of Mountain Dew, a large bottle of Gatorade, one bottle of water, two packages of Oscar Meyer franks and buns, a bag of Doritos, two Hershey’s chocolate bars, a pack of Orbit gum, miscellaneous plastic bags, a cardboard box, and an empty package of firestarter.

We picked up their trash. After we recycle the aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and cardboard, we will carry their trash to the landfill. For their ignominious inability to recognize 10 miles of litter-free road, I dedicate this column to them.

The Anchorage Waterways Council has sponsored an annual citywide creek cleanup in mid-May for 28 years. This year more than 500 participants collected about 6 tons of trash from local creeks and lakes. By the time you read this, it’ll be too late to sign up for that event too. Make a note and check out their website

I’d like twice as many people to participate in the citywide cleanups next year. Because if 6 percent of us are picking up other people’s trash, only 94 percent will be left to throw it out the window or in the creek.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com