Saving the environment one curb at a time

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    Presidential hopeful Al Gore is telling America he will see that every home in the country will have a computer and be hooked to the Internet — leaving us to wonder how this will benefit a lot of folks who can’t read well enough to operate a computer.

    While he says he will protect the environment (against Dubya’s record, this is not too tough), I wonder how he will do this when the country still has no coherent energy policy, and cities and counties make most of the decisions on water pollution prevention and waste recycling.

    I’m a firm believer in recycling just about everything — including the water spewed from our new water softener treated with potassium instead of salt so it won’t harm the landscape. But I find great disparity between recycling efforts in Kern and L.A. counties.

    Bakersfield, our nearest Kern County city, wrestles weekly with more important environmental issues than where the soda cans will go. Like how much agricultural land can be turned into tract houses and whether suburban homeowners have to have a factory dairy farm within smelling distance of their barbecues.

    Bakersfield has the dubious distinction of being the largest city on the West Coast that has no curbside recycling program for household trash. They’ll pick up your lawn clippings, leaves and tree branches (called green waste, which is more often than not brown) but not newspapers and beer bottles. This is a subject of recurring debate by city officials, whose polls show residents want the service but are not eager to pay an extra two bucks a month for it.

    Santa Clarita, our nearest city in L.A. County, manages to keep 11,400 tons of recyclables out of landfills with curbside pickup. To be fair, Santa Clarita, about one-third smaller than Bakersfield, is more suburban than rural, which changes the dynamic significantly.

    Where we live, it’s really rural — no mail delivery, no sewer, no trash pickup of any kind. Also, no curbs, no street lights, no pizza delivery. All trash removal is free — everybody hauls their own. There is a local company that will carry away your disabled appliances, broken trees, railroad ties, just about anything for a whopping fee. What they do with it seems to be a deep secret.

    Still, we now have an excellent recycling option, at least for those who can drive. The county landfill, which filled up some years ago, has been converted to a transfer station, complete with segregated containers for every possible recyclable thing.

    This is a vast improvement over what we had in the ’60s, an open dump where the whole stinking mess was set alight once a week, wafting acrid smoke across the hills and gagging everyone within a two-mile radius, or three miles downwind.

    Before the weekly cremation, however, local pack rats would haul away the worn sofas, three-legged chairs, refrigerators that curdled milk and froze eggs (probably leaking Freon into the ozone layer), and sundry farm implements and irrigation pipes shot full of holes by city folks who apparently can’t tell a three-point buck from a water tank. A sign, largely ignored, warned of dire consequences for those dumping dead animals or toxic waste. Few people in those days actually knew what was toxic, and there was no attendant to stop them from disposing of everything from old tires to Old Shep.

    The trick was to keep our ranch hand from bringing home more stuff than he had taken there — one man’s trash being another’s treasure. Discarded dog houses, broken radios, lamps with frayed wiring, abandoned bee hives, you name it. It never dawned on him that junk was left at the dump for a reason, like it can’t be fixed.

    The new transfer station has strict rules against picking up anything that has been left there. I was told once in no uncertain terms that I could not take a clean cardboard carton that someone hadn’t bothered to break down and put in the recycling bin.

    This environmentally responsible, free method for discarding trash is available only to Kern County residents, which makes sense because there is a fee buried in everyone’s property tax bill to cover it. So in Gorman, that tiny truck-stop village on I-5 where TV reporters do their standups when it snows (four miles away and just across the L.A. County line), residents have to haul their trash 50 miles to Lancaster or pay about $80 a month to an Antelope Valley disposal company for two pickups a month.

    In a rare cooperative agreement with L.A. County, however, a Bakersfield-based hauler is paid a fee by L.A. to service the Gorman area although it hauls the trash to a Kern County dump in Bakersfield. But no recycling.

    Maybe if Al Gore is intent on solving pollution he can find an easy way for all of us to recycle everything, some way that transcends county and city jurisdictions, without wasting bezillions of gallons of gas.

    Then again, maybe not. He’s going to have his hands full with global warming, oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and providing “every man, woman and child in the country with clean air and water.”