Recently, the topic of litter came up at a magazine editorial meeting, and it started with a simple question. Is littering as big a problem as it was years ago?

No one stipulated a time frame, but my initial response concentrated on an observation spanning 33 years. Since Maine’s bottle bill took effect June 1, 1978, roadside litter has declined significantly.

Folks my age can remember the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s, when a rising population and increased vehicular traffic translated into beverage containers and food wrappers lining highways. “The bad old days” is no exaggeration, either.

One gentleman at the editorial meeting owns rural land, and he thought littering has increased, based on the amount of trash illegally dumped on private property. This includes tires, washing machines, couches, televisions, mattresses, construction waste, hazardous material or — you name it.

The land need not be located in a rural area to become a target of illegal dumpers, either. Any place out of the public’s eye can become a dumping spot.

This causes landowners to post multi-thousands of acres, shutting out hikers, photographers, mountain bikers, hunters, anglers and so forth, an obvious loss for Maine’s recreationalists.

Some land posters may be looking for an excuse to keep the public off their land, but most landowners have long since become tired of assuming a responsibility pushed onto them by bureaucrats. And what exactly does “pushed by bureaucrats” mean?

Town or city officials often charge users to pay for leaving certain items at solid-waste disposal and recycling facilities, which at first glance may strike folks as fair. Taxpayers fund the dumps, so the responsibility of paying for excess refuse should fall to the family or business discarding it.

Here’s the problem, though.

If unscrupulous types must pay to deposit waste at proper facilities, they would prefer sneaking onto someone else’s property and discarding it there free. We know that happens and will continue as disposal-site prices rise. In fact, illegal dumping has reached an epidemic.

The current system makes landowners unwilling participants in storing society’s unwanted waste after sneaky types make a midnight visit.

A quick digression adds to this discussion, too.

A private, waste-disposal truck picks up my trash; consequently, I had lost track of prices at the transfer facility in my town, setting me up for a shock last summer. I dropped off a stuffed chair and huge rug (cut into manageable pieces) at the town’s disposal facility, and it cost over $30. Fortunately, Jolie, my intrepid companion, and I had enough cash between us to pay the bill, but it was close.

I grew up worshipping the Sierra Club and environmental leaders such as David Brower, Ted Williams (the writer), Doug Peacock, Henry David Thoreau, etc., so would never throw crap on someone else’s land, but I’m frugal enough to understand why a lowlife would do it.

The obvious solution to illegal dumping makes sense. Town facilities should pay people to throw away excess trash to destroy or recycle — the stuff we now pay the town to dispose of. A deposit system similar to the bottle bill would increase the public’s incentive to participate.

We know this principle works because the bottle bill has been a raging success since 1978.

The alternative to paying folks for going to these facilities creates the current problem — shifting the responsibility to landowners. And sure, they can post no-trespassing signs and gate the property, but the perpetrators are already breaking the law. What’s one more violation to them?

The 33-year-old bottle bill offers us an obvious solution to a growing problem. Money talks; deposits work. We can never lose sight of that fact.

Before leaving this topic, I must mention one more point. Tires rank as the most illegally dumped trash in the state. Interestingly, tire buyers already pay a deposit fee that goes into Maine’s general fund and not to the intended purpose of proper tire disposal. If the deposit went back to the buyer for a refund, that would take care of the tire problem.

Worse yet, tire buyers pay the deposit when purchasing tires and then repay tire stores to get rid of old tires. This isn’t the stores’ fault, either.

The blame falls to the law that allows the original deposit to disappear into the general fund.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]