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Science & Environment

Native American Goes Back To His Roots To Solve Garbage Problem On Reservations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When you hear the words Indian Country, you may imagine vast, unspoiled landscapes, but many reservations, like the Navajo and Hopi, are blighted with piles of trash. Most tribes lack basic services including running water, electricity and trash pickup, so people just dump garbage anywhere. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff on a man working to clean some of it up.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: There's a popular scenic spot on the Navajo Nation called Castle Rock. As you approach, a large hand-painted sign reads, please no dumping. But just beyond the sign, alongside the dirt road, you'll see a soggy gray couch and a scattered, half-burned a pile of trash. Combined, the Navajo and Hopi reservations make up an area the size of Ireland. They produce an estimated 300 million pounds of trash a year, but there's no place to legally dump it. In 1979, the federal government tightened landfill regulations to do things like protect groundwater and prevent fires. The Navajo Nation was unable to comply with the new policy, so...

JAMES BENALLY: That was my job, was to make sure that we close these landfills, 10 landfills, on the Navajo Nation.

MORALES: James Benally runs the Solid Waste Management Program for the Navajo Nation. Now the Navajo and Hopi pay to have their trash picked up and brought to transfer stations, where it's then hauled several miles away to landfills in border towns. But the trash trucks won't drive on the reservation's many dirt roads, so people just dump it in ditches. Benally and his crew have cleaned up more than 150 of these illegal dump sites. He's counted at least 300 that remain. And it costs money.

BENALLY: For now the picture kind of looks bleak, as far as cleaning up the rest of the illegal dump sites.

MORALES: But trying to make a dent in that problem is one Hopi man named Tyler Tawahongva.

TYLER TAWAHONGVA: Traditionally, we have been recyclers. We used everything, you know, from our hunting, whatever we gathered - everything was used. So that was a form of recycling.

MORALES: Tawahongva says if more people recycled, there would be less trash to dump. A year and half ago, Tawahongva quit his job as a substance abuse counselor when he realized he could earn money recycling. He makes his rounds each day to a hotel, a grocery store and a hospital to pick up as much recycling as he can stuff in the back of his minivan. Sometimes the bins start to overflow before he can get to them.

TAWAHONGVA: When they start overflowing, I get calls. They'll say, well, we'll just throw it in the trash - the worst five words of a recycler. (Laughter).

MORALES: Once he's accumulated enough, Tawahongva rents a large truck from Flagstaff and hauls the recyclables down to Phoenix, a total of 350 miles. There, he gets $70 for each ton of cardboard. The price recently dropped, so with the cost of gas eating away at his profits, lately he's barely breaking even. Still, he says, it's worth it.

TAWAHONGVA: I don't think I could sleep at night if I knew it was all going in the trash.

MORALES: Tawahongva dreams of someday operating a regional recycling outfit on the reservation that generates revenue, provides jobs and addresses the larger infrastructure problem of trash and trash removal in Indian Country. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.