Basking in the sun on this bright October afternoon, a line of ducks cruises through the water of Gastineau Channel near where the Douglas Bridge meets the island. On days like this, this spot offers a perfect view of downtown and the spruce-lined mountains that rise behind it.
On the beach a few feet away from the ducks, Leticia McRae shoves a handful of plastic bags and a crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon can into a large trash bag. Juneau’s natural beauty is apparent on days like this, and McRae is doing her part to keep it that way.
“I’m not a nonprofit and I’m not an organization,” McRae says. “I’m just a girl who wants to start a trend.”
Taking a closer look
This endeavor started five years ago, when McRae noticed trash as she hiked out the road. She decided to start picking the trash up every once in a while, packing the backseat and trunk of her two-door, silver Pontiac Sunfire with trash bags.
For three years, people told McRae that the trash in Juneau was “no worse than it’s ever been,” but she felt otherwise and wanted to find a way to prove it. She knew that people would respond to a visual demonstration.
McRae began the “Community Cleanup in Progress” Facebook page on Feb. 5, 2016, hoping to display to the community that Juneau’s trash problem is worse than some might think. With thick undergrowth just about everywhere around town, it’s hard to see trash at a glance.
A closer look, McRae said, will reveal that Juneau does indeed have a trash problem.
“I think people have become complacent,” McRae said. “That’s easy to do here. You go down south and the litter is way more noticeable. You come up here, it’s not so noticeable. … It’s easy to not notice that it’s as bad as it is.”
Sifting through the garbage
More than 700 people follow the Facebook page, where McRae posts a few updates a week. She’s upgraded from her Pontiac, now driving a black Toyota truck that carries her logo (a ladybug picking up trash) on the side of it. She goes out a few times a week, armed with trash bags, thick gloves and a Sharps container, an FDA-approved case in which to safely store used needles.
Last year, McRae picked up about 750 pounds of trash. She entered 2017 with the goal of collecting twice as much. As of early October, she was already above 2,300 pounds of trash collected and taken to the dump. The landfill charges $40 per load, and she’s made seven trips this year with one more coming soon. That’s a total of $320, but friends have helped her with the costs so she’s paid $200 from her own pocket, she said.
As the adage goes, you can learn a lot about somebody from their trash. In McRae’s case, she’s learning about the whole community.
She’s shocked at the amount of toilet paper and sanitary products she finds, as it’s much more of a problem this year than previous years. She often finds balloons as well, that people release into the sky without thinking of where they’ll come down. She’s seen a great deal of discarded tires as well, and even home appliances or entire cars.
One freezer stands out to her, that was left on the side of the road just under a “No Dumping” sign.
“It’s kind of giving the whole community the finger,” McRae said. “It’s kind of rude. It really is.”
To her pleasant surprise, though, she said she’s finding fewer needles this year. In her 750 pounds of trash last year, she said she found more than 30 used needles. This year, through more than three times as much trash collected, she said she’s found only 15.
Just a week after she said that, though, she found three needles on a trash-collecting trip near Sunny Point.
“Picking up litter is not the safest task,” McRae posted on her page, along with a picture of the needles. “But it needs to be done.”
A challenging task
Juneau’s isolation makes it difficult and expensive to get trash out of town, and the city’s lone landfill is slowly filling up. The City and Borough of Juneau’s RecycleWorks program is working on solutions to extend the landfill’s lifespan through education and programs to help people dispose of recycling, hazardous waste and cars, among other programs.
McRae said people from all over the world follow her page, curious to see the process and the results. She’s seen people get inspired and go out to find trash. It can be a tough job, picking up needles and other germ-infested items. She doesn’t have any training for dealing with hazardous materials, but wears thick gloves and carries her Sharps container with her in case she finds needles.
She strongly encourages others to get out there and just pick up their favorite trail or their parking lot at work. It doesn’t need to be anything too ambitious, she said, at least not to start. But she warned that once you start, you might not stop.
“The habit of actually picking up trash, the more you do it, the more you do it all the time,” McRae said. “I go to pay a bill and walk out of AEL&P and there’s litter in the parking lot and there I am, Juneau’s crazy trash lady, picking it up.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com.