Talking Trash: The garbage that doesn’t make it to the dump

At an informal, and illegal, dump 25 miles out the Haines Highway, residents have tossed everything from old washing machines to broken chest freezers. (Photo by Abbey Collins/KHNS)

Haines is a scenic town, surrounded by the ocean and towering mountains. But there’s one big eyesore that’s taken over parts of the area: garbage.

Like some other cities, illegal dumping is a problem the community can’t seem to get a handle on.

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But, there’s hope that could change with a different system for waste disposal.

About 25 miles out the Haines Highway, there’s a pullout.

From the road, a large sand pile obstructs trails leading to the Chilkat River. In the summer they provide a short route down to the water. In the winter, a popular cross-country ski track.

Over the years, the area has also become an informal and illegal dump.

Takshanuk Watershed Council interim director Derek Poinsette lives out the highway and drives by the 25-mile eyesore regularly. He said illegal dumping here has been an issue for as long as he can remember.

The watershed council runs community cleanups, and Poinsette says this particular trash pile gets removed every couple years.

Poinsette said it’s not just an eyesore, illegal dumping causes environmental concerns as well.

So, why would people bring garbage here instead of the sanctioned landfill? Poinsette points to money.

“I think it’s just expensive,” Poinsette said. “Anything that has any weight to it is expensive to get rid of.”

That’s been a driving factor in the conversation a local working group started last year. The question before them: is there a better way for Haines to deal with solid waste?

Right now, Haines has one option for garbage disposal, privately owned Community Waste Solutions. Many residents load their garbage in their car or truck, drive it to the landfill, and pay by weight. Mixed waste costs $0.27 per pound.

There’s one other option for some items, the non-profit Haines Friends of Recycling also will take things such as refrigerators and washing machines for a fee.

For people who don’t generate a lot of trash, or get rid of waste by burning it or recycling, the garbage company’s pay-by-the-pound is a pretty cheap system. But that’s not true for everyone.

“It’s expensive to get rid of your trash here,” Darsie Culbeck said.

Culbeck chairs Haines’ solid waste working group. He said illegal dumping isn’t the main motivation for the conversation they’re having.

But it’s a symptom of the bigger problem.

“I’ve been here 30 years, as a wilderness guide and a person that’s out in the bushes quite a bit,” Culbeck said. “It’s a big problem. There’s lots of trash out in the – if you do the community cleanups in the spring and walk the ditches there’s garbage all over the place, it’s disgusting.”

That’s the weird thing, right? This has been a problem for a long time. It’s common knowledge that there are trashed appliances sitting out at 25 mile, and garbage in pullouts along the highway.

So, why is it still happening?

“Usually things are deposited in the dead of night by people who don’t leave their names behind,” Haines Borough Manager Debra Schnabel said. “It’s impossible to identify who was the previous owner. And that’s the nature of it.”

Schnabel grew up in Haines and she does remember a time when this wasn’t such a big issue. She points to what she sees as the turning point: when the borough ended mandatory trash pickup.

Reinstating mandatory pickup isn’t necessarily the answer here, Schnabel said. But she does think accountability should be introduced back into the system.

“You can have an account with the borough but you can manage it yourself,” Schnabel said. “You can choose to take it to the dump. You can choose to recycle 100 percent or 90 percent. As long as we know what you’re doing with your garbage. I’m not telling you what you have to do but it has to be done in a safe manner.”

Illegal dumping is a problem that persists throughout Southeast.

In the last year, Tongass National Forest law enforcement officers responded to nearly 30 cases.

Public Affairs Officer Paul Robbins said it’s a consistent problem. There are particularly problematic areas, such as Sitka’s Harbor Mountain Road and Ketchikan’s Brown Mountain Road.

In Haines, the solid waste working group has struggled to find the right answer.

“Remember we’ve been talking about this for a year,” Culbeck said at a September meeting. “Or, some people 25 years or however long. And it’s political. This is going to be hard to move through and we need to keep it as simple as we possibly can.”

The issue is political for a couple reasons that mostly come down to cost.

Residents who don’t generate a lot of trash worry about paying more for disposal – through taxes or a utility fee.

In Haines, the waste group has a recommendation for the assembly that includes setting up a transfer station in a central location, funded through a sales tax hike. That would reduce the cost per-pound to just $0.02 to $0.08.

Illegal dumping brings penalties.

Fines for littering range from $50 to $100. But, because it’s so hard to figure out who’s doing it, they don’t serve as much of a deterrent. Whether a new strategy for waste disposal is the light at the end of the trash-filled tunnel remains to be seen.

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