A Blog Post About Trash

See my interview about this topic with Scripps National News!

My rural, desert community may be small, but it has a few eye catching features. First are the windmills, which make up the largest wind farm in America. For as big as they look from the gas stations on the 58, you don’t really get a sense of how massive they are unless you take the scenic drive up into the mountains. They’re wonders of engineering, design, and a daily reminder that people can come up with pretty big solutions when we try.

The next thing you’re likely to notice is the garbage, because it’s hard to miss. I’m not trying to be mean or air my town’s dirty laundry. Anyone who passes through can see it, and those of us who live here are intimately familiar with the refuse that lines our fences and curbs. The shrubs that grow in vacant lots look like weird little Christmas trees, with their branches full of shredded plastic bags, glittering in the sun like garland.

The reason we are home to the world’s largest wind farm (I know, Tehachapi likes to take credit) is that our area has uniquely windy conditions. Average daily winds are around 10-20 mph, and as I write this, the winds are blowing closer to 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph.

Today is also trash day, so people are starting to set their garbage cans out. What happens next is pretty predictable. The wind topples over garbage cans, and then it’s not long before it gets carried through the streets and across the desert.

The wind isn’t the only natural force that contributes to our trash problems. The dogs that roam through the area will gladly open up a garbage bag, and a raven can empty a trash can in minutes looking for something to eat. 

As a result, it looks like Mojave is home to a bunch of litter bugs who just don’t care much about their community. This makes tourists who pass by less careful about catching the trash that slips from their cars. Even in our local Facebook pages, we often blame each other for the trash that piles up. Vaguely passive aggressive posts will finger wag at “those people” for not picking up after themselves.

A Mojave alley. Photo by Joyce Nash

Not only are our trash receptacles inadequate for our environment, there’s also not enough of them. In our park, which is often strewn with litter, there are only five garbage cans! There used to be more, but they were removed and only those few were replaced. 

We are also a community with high rates of poverty and a higher than average rate of renters vs. homeowners. There are frequently many people (often extended family) living in one house or apartment. The single garbage cans allotted to each address are just not enough.

Few homeowners are eager to spend more money on additional garbage cans for their tenets, and few renters want to make it a problem with their landlords (especially when there are so many other problems that need to be fixed). And so the trash piles up.

It is easy to see our trash problem as an issue of “personal responsibility”. If all of us in Mojave would just be personally responsible for our own trash, and maybe also the trash that blows into our yards, then the problem would be solved. 

It wouldn’t, though. That doesn’t address the issue of not having enough receptacles to hold it, or what to do when the wind, birds, or dogs inevitably redistribute it. 

Our trash problem isn’t because we’re too lazy or irresponsible to deal with it. Our trash problem is a failure of infrastructure and civic planning. 

We have figured out how to harness energy from the wind with giant windmills, but we can’t figure out a wind-proof trash can? We have trash cans that keep out bears, but not ravens?

Considering all the other incredible things people have figured out, this trash problem doesn’t seem impossible. It is a matter of priorities, though, and for the leadership in Kern County, things like “providing a basic level of services” and “ensuring safety and quality of life” seem to be low on the list.

I’m not writing this because I have a clever trash related solution. I wish I did, because the wind has already knocked one of my neighbor’s garbage bags out of their can. What I want is for us to challenge the story we tell ourselves when we see trash piled up against fences, whether they’re here in Mojave or somewhere else.

Did that trash get there because lazy people didn’t pick up after themselves? Or did the trash pile up as a result of lots of different factors?

What we think about trash on the road matters. If we believe it’s the result of lazy people, then that will impact how we treat those people and that place. Lazy people don’t need help, they just need to get to work. But, if we see the trash as a failure of planning, leadership, and collective action, then that opens up all kinds of possible solutions. 

I haven’t really touched on the environmental impact of all this loose garbage, or the health and safety risks to people and animals that it presents. All of these problems are a real part of the day to day life here. Do you avoid walking in sandals due to dirty diapers, food wrappers, and other trash on the sidewalk? I do.

For as urgent as these problems are, I doubt we’ll get to a solution as long as we see the trash as a moral failing of our community. The only thing lazy here is the “personal responsibility” argument, so let’s put it where it belongs: in the trash. 

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