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Is excess trash an infrastructure problem or a behavior problem?

Posted at 1:54 PM, Jun 10, 2021

MOJAVE, Calif. — When we think of infrastructure, roads, bridges and broadband come to mind, but for one town, the biggest infrastructure issue isn’t any of these—it’s trash.

From neighborhood trash cans overflowing with garbage to dumpsters in parking lots spilling onto the pavement, neighbors in Mojave, California believe the infrastructure to handle their trash isn't doing enough.

"It's hard to not notice the trash that lays around town," said Joyce Nash, who lives in Mojave and volunteers to clean up the trash around town.

Nash said every week well before trash is picked up, garbage cans are overflowing, and trash ends up blowing all over the city.

“It's a matter of not enough receptacles and having trash receptacles that just aren't appropriate for where we live and how we need to use them," Nash explained.

Nash said the trash problem is even more noticeable because of the immense wealth right outside the city. The Mojave Desert is home to the largest wind farm in the country. On any drive, you can see billions of dollars in turbines spinning above the sand. The farm is an investment in a greener future, but underneath these turbines, sits a city that could use a little investment of its own.

Across from the wind farm is the Virgin Atlantic's Mojave Air and Space Port, where the next passenger spaceship is being built.

“It's amazing the things that they're doing," said Nash of the innovation going on so close to her home. "I think it's even more amazing that it's juxtaposed next to our community where, you know, so many of us struggle with hunger, secure housing, safe housing. And, you know, we're struggling to get our basic needs met. But at the same time, you know, there's millions, if not billions of dollars being spent on the other side of a chain-link fence. And it's hard to reconcile that."

As she walks through her hometown every morning, she can’t help but think: this isn’t just a people problem.

“It's frustrating to see my home be dismissed as, ‘Oh, they're just poor people who don't care enough,’ and that's not the problem. The problem isn't that we don't care enough. The problem is that we're overwhelmed, and this is more than what we could handle ourselves,” she said.

She said it comes down to infrastructure.

“We think about roads and bridges as being the first type of infrastructure. But trash is one of those things that it's like kind of a building block of society. When it's not handled well, you see it impacting everything.”

But Chuck Magee, who manages public works for Kern County, believes it’s not so much an infrastructure problem as it is a human behavior issue.

“There are all kinds of infrastructure in place and programs in place to help clean these things out and make sure it never gets to be a problem,” said Magee. “The problem comes from people not using them.”

“I think it's got to be all of these different elements coming together,” said Nash. “Having the option for another pickup that didn't cost an arm and a leg because, again, we're not affluent, making these things more accessible, easier to utilize, I think could go a long way.

Soon, help will be on the way. Kern County passed two ordinances to help manage trash across the county. One ordinance will impose a fee on all trash customers but will send cleanup crews to pick up illegally dumped trash throughout the county. That will take effect in early 2022.

“We will have crews that go out and do nothing but pick up illegal dumping in the eastern part, Kern County, which includes the Mojave area, just to try to alleviate that, because we're going to be picking up not only new illegal dumping, but it's historic. There's stuff that's been out there for a long time,” said Magee.

The second ordinance will get people who don’t have regular trash pickup on a scheduled route.

“A lot of the residents in the area that don't have waste collection services, will be put into areas that it won't be an option because it is a big enough problem,” said Magee. “So, anywhere that's above the line or thresholds for population density will now have service."

Magee said it will likely take several years to really correct the issue for residents, but he believes the day will come when the streets stay clean and the city sees an impact.

“We just hope that by cleaning it, people will see a better environment, a better everything and that more people will go, ‘I kind of like this. I'm going to make sure that it stays that way,’” said Magee.

Both Nash and Magee agree: the trash cannot remain as it is now.

“It absolutely is a health crisis,” said Nash. “There was one community cleanup that we did in a vacant lot. We found a stash of used needles. We need a place for these items to go to keep us all safe,” said Nash.

“It’s just unsightly. It's unsanitary, and, you know, you can actually get people sick and hurt them if you're not careful,” said Magee.

But in the meantime, Nash says she will still come to clean up her neighborhood when she can.

“We all have to come together and do both our individual part and also our part as a society,” she said. “I know it's definitely not just Mojave that deals with this. It is communities all across America. We're all struggling with this conflict of, is it individual people just not pulling their fair share or is it a problem that we all need to come together and fix?”

“It’s everybody's problem,” said Magee. “If you don't think it's your problem, it's just not your problem right this minute, it will be eventually."