Jim Kenyon: Trash Talk

Maybe it’s because I don’t get outdoors enough, but this summer I’ve noticed a change in some of the Upper Valley’s public parks. And I’m not sure it’s a change for the better.

After grabbing lunch-to-go at a downtown Claremont pizza parlor on a recent sunny afternoon, I strolled up the hill to the city park across the street from Fiske Free Library. With plenty of benches and shade trees, the Broad Street park is an inviting spot.

A slice of cheese pizza, a garden salad and a bottle of water later, I looked around for a receptacle to deposit the containers and plastic utensils.

I came up empty.

Where did all the trash cans go?

Ginger Chan, who works at the city’s library, was having lunch in the park at the same time. She was just as mystified as I was.

“It would seem to encourage people to throw their trash on the ground,” she said.

I thought logic was on her side.

Claremont is among the Upper Valley communities that has pulled trash cans from some parks during the last few years. Hartford is another.

At first I was afraid that more post-9/11 paranoia was at work. In spite of what the fear-mongers at Homeland Security would like us to believe, not every park trash barrel is a potential hiding spot for a terrorist’s explosives.

So I was relieved to learn that the decision by some municipalities to remove trash bins wasn’t an attempt to foil terrorism plots. The reason was mundane.

“It helps reduce expenses,” explained Scott Hausler, Claremont’s parks and recreation director.

Emptying trash cans and hauling away the refuse takes time and money, said Hausler. (Claremont has kept trash cans in some of the city’s larger parks.) In Hartford, the job of picking up and hauling the trash from a dozen or so parks was outsourced for a while to a private company, which cost $9,000 to $12,000 a year, said Tad Nunez, the town’s parks and recreation director.

Nunez and Hausler told me that it’s not just about saving taxpayer dollars. Upper Valley communities who have opted to go sans cans are part of the Carry in, Carry out, environmental movement.

“This isn’t something we concocted,” said Nunez. “It’s a national trend.”

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about a pilot program that the National Park Service started this year in the Washington, D.C. area. The George Washington Memorial Parkway, which attracts eight million visitors a year to its parks, memorials and rest areas has replaced 55 garbage cans with “Trash Free Park” signs.

The thinking being that if park visitors are required to lug out their own trash, they will bring in less stuff to begin with. Along with reducing the carbon footprint of picnic-goers, the policy encourages people to be “good stewards” of their public parks, said Nunez.

“Does everybody do it?” he added. “No.”

Ratcliffe Park, on the edge of downtown White River Junction, doesn’t offer trash cans and has the baseball dugouts littered with empty Gatorade bottles to prove it. Still, Kim Souza, a downtown business owner who was weeding beets in the park’s community garden when I stopped by, said the town’s strategy is environmentally sound.

“I think we can pick up after ourselves,” she said.

Hartford, like Claremont, continues to offer trash bins at some public spaces, including Veterans Park next to the county courthouse.

While visitors to some Hartford parks are being asked to take out their own trash, dog owners have been exempted. The town has installed plastic bag dispensers and “dog waste only” containers.

And who is lucky enough to get the job of emptying those?

“We all take turns,” said Nunez.

The state of Vermont has also adopted a everyone-is-responsible-for-disposing-of-their-own-trash policy at most of its unstaffed public facilities.

The Sharon park and ride, just off I-89, being one. Judging from the parking lot’s crushed soft drink cans, empty coffee cups and potato chip bags, the state sign warning of a $500 fine for littering isn’t always a deterrent.

Wayne Davis, a supervisor with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, told me that, like many towns, the state was constantly finding its pubic bins filled with household trash that wild animals then feasted on. “By not providing trash receptacles, most people take their trash with them and the facility stays cleaner,” emailed Davis.

At Colburn Park in downtown Lebanon, city officials aren’t taking that chance. Trash cans are still in plentiful supply. On Monday, Liz Leadbetter and her husband, Tam Ly, stopped with their two young children for a picnic in the park, while driving from their home in upstate New York to Maine.

“Thank the city for the garbage cans,” said Ly. “We plan on using them.”

I guess getting rid of trash cans in parks makes a certain amount of sense. Saving tax dollars while encouraging people to generate fewer disposable items has merit.

But there is such a thing as going too far. Communities might at least want to follow the National Park Service’s lead by giving away trash bags where there are no more bins.

Dog owners aren’t the only ones who could use them.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.