Trash-Free Zone

TAKOMA PARK IS the District of Columbia's ultra liberal, alternative lifestyle suburb. Full of aging hippies and Green party activists, the Maryland town is a nuclear-free zone and boasts one of the oldest mixed paper recycling programs in the country. The town's environmental dedication includes regulations that make it virtually impossible to cut down a tree, even if the tree is already falling down.

Yet Takoma Park, a town that prides itself on being progressive, is pro-trash. You've got it right. Nuclear weapons — bad. Trash — good. Actually, Takoma Park doesn't think that garbage is good. Its residents think that the county government's decision to remove trash cans from county parks is foolish.

The “carry-in, carry-out” policy applies to all Montgomery County parks except for the larger, regional parks. They were exempted, I guess, because their size offers too many easy places for people to dump trash. Recreational areas also were exempted, probably because the county didn't want to take on the soccer moms. Smaller parks, however, provide less cover for dumpers. Those parks don't have trash cans any more.

County officials give two reasons for the new policy. The first is “environmental stewardship,” which is something about creating a sense of responsibility and ownership of trash. But if the county were serious about stewardship, it would apply the ban to all of the parks, not just to the smaller ones.

The county also pleads poverty, claiming it can't afford to collect park trash. Maybe garbage disposal is too expensive in the county. This is a bit ironic because Montgomery County owns the trash incinerator and is one of America's most affluent counties. Also, the current park director voted for the burner when he was on the county council. But by taking away the trash cans, the county intends to save money and make trash disappear.

Montgomery County isn't the only local government to try to save money by getting rid of public trash cans. Cleveland removed more than 1,500 trash cans from the city because of serious budget problems. Of course, without trash cans, litter is likely to increase in the city. No one likes litter. It's unsightly. Worse, left unchecked, litter can create rat and fly problems.

Part of the reason that Takoma Park is so angry is because the pilot study of the “carry-in carry-out” program bombed at the test park inside the city's limits. The test probably failed for a simple reason. The park is popular with many Takoma Park residents who live in apartment houses. They don't have the luxury of garages or large storage spaces for trash bags. Instead, these picnic-goers need trash cans in parks so they can responsibly take care of their garbage.

Takoma Park, which is often derided for its sometimes bizarre policies, is absolutely right on this one. We can't wish away trash. We can't make it disappear by taking away the trash cans. Good environmental stewardship provides park users with a safe way to dispose of their garbage and still enjoy the park.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.