Next week I will be standing up in front of a roomful of nerdy but relentless recycling activists, old-time transfer station operators who have seen everything, garbage chemists, statistics geeks, terrifyingly gung-ho volunteers, Department of Environmental Protection staffers who swear that they are the Good Guys, long-suffering public works heroes, industry regulars in sport jackets who do the Rubber Chicken Circuit way more than their cardiologists recommend, skeptical selectmen from up in the Maine woods, maybe the guy who won the Forklift Rodeo, and hopefully a few of the good folks who have mentored me for years from Knox County area recycling facilities.

I’ll be the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s lunch which, since it falls toward the end of the two-day Maine Resource Recycling Association’s 25th annual conference, will only attract a good-sized crowd if the weather is lousy and the Samoset’s desserts are especially tempting.

My topic will be “It’s never going to work,” or how tiny, remote, and allegedly rabid Matinicus Island set up a successful recycling program in the face of conventional wisdom, generational habits, the Jolly Roger, and some Town Fathers who were, as is ordinarily the case with Town Fathers, underwhelmed by the whole idea.

There is no way I can tell the whole story in my allotted half-hour.

We started this hopelessly idealistic trucking-away-the-garbage thing 15 years ago. Prior to that it was every man for himself. If you go back in history, most every small town had a town dump, which they accidentally on purpose allowed to catch fire every now and then for its own good. The dump was where an aspiring young hunter might sneak, at some disreputable hour, to practice his marksmanship and dispatch a few mutant rats. Matinicus never had a town dump — or an acknowledged municipal dump anyway — and thus was never obligated to open a transfer station. We had — and unfortunately still have — the “steep banks,” an all-too-accessible bluff, sadly in close proximity to a drop-dead-gorgeous swimming beach. From this little cliff, folks still thinking it 1952 might toss their household’s excesses and cast-offs, flung out of sight except to Criehaven, in hopes that the sea would make it all go away. Water, we learned in freshman year, is the closest thing we know to a universal solvent.

It ain’t universal enough.



A few friends will take it wrong if they read that I shake a stern finger at those who dump off the steep banks. They claim the validation of history (I have a mere 30 years in residence; hardly a drop in the bucket). I was told earlier today that “you can’t make everybody happy, so you’d better not worry about it,” so here goes. Those very few who still huck their kitchen trash and dead appliances out of the back of the pickup onto the shoreline are in the wrong, historic precedent or not. Dumping off the steep banks these days, now that we have options, is an obnoxious act and little else but an intentional snub of the property owner, the beachcomber, and the critters of the surf. There.

This custom of pitching trash over the edge comes from the days before plastic, of course, but there’s more to it. A generation or two back, the Old Ladies Who Ran Everything tended toward a determined practicality in their household economics, evidenced by the seven thousand empty mayonnaise jars in every cellar. Back in the day, not every object which fell out of favor was consigned immediately to the trash. The middle decades of the 20th century brought changes beyond the obvious increase in plastic packaging, planned obsolescence, and “Cheap Chinese” products, no offense. For one thing, the island general store dwindled, shriveling until it disappeared. A few attempts to start a store kept us intermittently in ice cream for a couple of years, but we began to accept that mail order, or something akin to it, was the way of the future.

I was told, 15 years ago as we started this whole recycling experiment, that it made no sense to worry about what we do with our lead paint and junk mail because “this is Matinicus, where we don’t have to follow any rules.” That sentiment is near and dear to my anarchic little heart, but it is to a measurable extent baloney. I am no great respecter of rules, and you can ask my parents, but that attitude doesn’t hold water in the ethics of sea and sky. The assumption that a going tide can dissolve all of our sins and trespasses, and our polyethylene and polystyrene, is chemically inaccurate and not particularly neighborly.

I was also advised by some hometown expert, as we started the project, that I’d best keep my head down because “Augusta doesn’t know we’re here.” Unquote.