I took several garbage bags filled with a disconcerting number of beer cans and bottles to the recycling center yesterday afternoon. As I placed the aromatic contents in bins swarming with yellow jackets, an old man beside me filled the bed of his rickety red pick-up with unbroken bottles. In Maine, wine and liquor bottles bring 15 cents, all others a nickel – but many small towns don’t have redemption centers, and I realized that this man was taking out what I was putting in. He had spent all day weed eating up in the graveyard. “People appreciate it,” he said, “but when I get sweat in my ears, my hearing aids don’t work.” He had come here to make extra money.
“Last week,” he said, “I took $268 out of here in two days. . . .If we don’t take these, they just end up in the dump.” I redirected my treasure to the back of his truck.
Years ago in Ireland and later in Bhutan, two of the world’s most beautiful countries, I was appalled at the amount of trash by the roadsides and in the streams. Both countries were emerging from poverty into consumerism. The idea of excess was new, and they found themselves overwhelmed by throw-away goods.
“We had no concept of trash,” a Bhutanese official said. “What one person discarded, another had a use for.”
Maine’s 24-year-old bottle bill has reduced litter, promoted environmental awareness, and become a small source of revenue for the state’s increasing and invisible poor. It is also under attack from commercial interests and the governor.