If you see it, you own it – Knox County VillageSoup

Last weekend, in memory of the late Leonard Lookner and in celebration of Earth Day, we held the 5th Annual Leonard Lookner Memorial Roadside Cleanup. It always leaves me feeling uplifted to see the cross section of residents who show up to dedicate a couple hours (or sometimes their whole weekend) to getting trash out of the environment. There are a lot of little things to disagree on in the community, and so it feels good to come together on the basics. I remember a funny moment years ago when we were deciding whether our communities should sign a contract for waste disposal with a Portland incinerator or a different municipal cooperative working on some new technology, and everyone had opinions about what was best for the environment. Maggie Timmerman, a Rockport resident who has organized roadside cleanups for years, leaned over and whispered, “I just want us to get the trash off the roads.” Now there’s something we can all agree on!

Leonard did a lot of walking and was fond of commenting on the things he saw commuting on foot back and forth from town to his farm on Melvin Heights Road. He always wanted the town to do more to celebrate Earth Day and was well known for picking up trash when he saw it. The roadside cleanup has been a fitting tribute. Few people agreed with Leonard on everything all the time. He once unfriended me on Facebook after a disagreement about something trash related, but we always worked it out at the end, and we certainly always agreed that trash shouldn’t be left on the side of the road, no matter how it got there or where it would go once it got to the transfer station.

“If you see it, you own it,” he was fond of saying. Sometimes it was about trash and sometimes about dealing with a misplaced item at the Waterfront Restaurant where his daughter Jenna and I would hang out as kids. I didn’t always know what he was talking about then, but I do now. The same philosophy that compels someone to pick up stray litter is also what can make them a great restaurant owner, manager, or employee. It’s the idea that if you notice a problem, and have the ability to do something about it, it becomes your problem to do something about. People who think that way often find themselves drawn to town government or other community volunteerism, and we are blessed with a lot of them here in Camden.

Trash in the environment is a problem that is faced in every community and there are many policies that can be enacted to reduce the amount of it. But for now, there is no getting around the fact that someone needs to pick up the stuff that ends up where it shouldn’t. Aside from some targeted efforts in the downtown, town employees do not go out and clean up litter and other debris on town roads. Anything that flies out of the back of a truck, escapes the pockets of a toddler, or is tossed out the window when no one is looking either stays where it and becomes part of the soil and dust falls, or it blows or washes away to The lakes, streams, and ocean.

Last weekend, we removed over a thousand pounds of trash from Camden roads and parking lots, including thousands of cigarette butts. A group of two people from Sea Dog Brewery and the Surfrider Foundation picked up 509 cigarette butts in just a couple hours downtown. There seem to be a large number of us who don’t believe that cigarette butts even count as litter from a legal perspective, but they most certainly do, and you can be fined for discarding one on the ground just like with anything else. Smoking is actually not even permitted on the Public Landing, but it appears to be a super low enforcement priority. Aside from cigarette butts, other items include everything from blue foam to beer cans to bags of chips, bottle caps, candy wrappers, iced tea, boxed wine, and coffee cups. There are also a lot of things that are less likely to have been tossed deliberately like masks, business cards, ski passes, stickers, receipts, flyers, tarps, plastic toys, zip ties, pieces of automobiles, and more.

When you really start looking at all the stuff on the ground and you take the time to pick up and bag it all, many people start getting and looking for someone to blame angry. While there is undoubtedly a portion of roadside debris that is deliberately launched, much of it doesn’t feel that way. So, who is responsible for all of it? Well, it seems that we all are. According to most studies on the issue, at least 40% of all roadside litter is unintentional. It comes from debris flying off unsecured loads, wayward recycling that tipped out of a bin, and things blowing out when car doors are opened.

I can’t quite remember the context, but there’s something else Leonard said that I’ve always remembered. “Sometimes we all have to pick up after our neighbors.” It’s a lot like what I tell my kids when they protest picking up anything off the floor they didn’t leave there or washing someone else’s dishes. Living in a home together would be pretty inefficient and impractical if we stuck to the rule of doing everything for ourselves and only cleaning up our own messes. The same is true of our shared community spaces, roads, and waterways. We all make mistakes. We all lose an occasional piece of trash into the environment, and it takes all of us working together to keep things clean. We still have some road sections that need a volunteer, and we will provide safety vests, trash pickers, and will pick up the bagged trash. Email me at amckellar@camdenmaine.gov if you can help. You can also visit the town website for a link to the road assignment spreadsheet.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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