Gene Van Dyken has started every Tuesday morning for the past fourteen years the same way: rallying with a group of volunteers behind the Chevron gas station off Continental, ready to pick up some trash.
Van Dyken is the de facto leader of an enthusiastic group of volunteers – the Green Valley Litter Patrol – who dedicate two hours each week to picking up litter along I-19 as part of the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Adopt A Highway program.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and I think we all enjoy it. We have fun and get in a little bit of exercise,” Van Dyken said. “We’re really just working from the ground up and trying to be part of making Green Valley a better place,” he said.
Along exit ramps and sidewalks, overpasses and under bridges, the Litter Patrol has collected more than 4,000 bags of garbage since they started picking in 2007. This year, they’re on track to do more than 250 bags before wrapping up their season this summer.
But after a year of pandemic restrictions that strained many of Arizona’s regular litter clean-up programs, more of today’s litter burden has fallen on the shoulders of volunteers, like the Litter Patrol.
“It’s a ripple effect when you litter because someone else has to pick it up,” Van Dyken said. “Through those summer months, I know it’ll all get back in here again. By the time we get back to it in the fall, we start all over. And that’s just the deal.”
Over 51 billion pieces of litter are left on roadways in the United States each year. In Arizona, taxpayers pay approximately $4 million annually to clean up state highways, excluding the tons of trash picked up by volunteer initiatives each year, like ADOT’s Adopt A Highway program.
States discourage littering through a variety of methods, one of which is to create and enforce criminal penalties and fines that punish litterbugs. This is the case in Arizona, where depending on the weight and volume of your trash, you can be fined up to $2,500 for littering near public highways or recreational areas if law enforcement catches you in the act.
Careless drivers and passengers account for a large portion of the garbage left on the roadways and exit ramps, said Douglas Nick, a spokesman for ADOT.
“What we find on the side of the road, by and large, are things like fast food wrappers, water bottles, paper products, and trash that people could easily keep in their vehicles until they go home or reach some place where there’s a trash can,” Nick said. “But for whatever reason, they simply choose to toss it out the window. And that’s just wrong. It’s against the law, it’s unhealthy, it’s unsightly and it’s wrong.”
In the Green Valley area, Van Dyken said another huge culprit are landscapers and contractors with unsecured loads, which can leave hazardous debris in the roadway with one gust of wind.
“See this here,” Van Dyken says, pointing to a pickup truck carrying trash cans without lids and exposed construction materials.
“When you have landscapers or contractors, you need to tell them you appreciate that they tie down their trash and don’t litter,” he said. “Just that little bit, I think, can go a long way.”
The pandemic has only complicated litter cleanup efforts.
In 2020, the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Adopt A Highway programs saw an overall decrease in litter volunteer activity, with a nearly 50% reduction in the number of groups reporting cleanup efforts. The South Central District alone, which includes Green Valley, lost about 500 volunteers in 2020 and pulled in about 13% less trash than in 2019, amounting to over 3,000 pounds of garbage.
The COVID-19 outbreak also crippled another of the state’s largest regular clean-up efforts – the inmate litter pick-up programs headed by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.
To mitigate the spread of the virus, ADCRR pulled back all its off-site work crews on March 25, 2020, a safety measure that will stay in place until public health experts say the COVID-19 virus “no longer a threat,” a representative with ADCRR said.
Nick said the absence of those inmate work crews had a significant impact on littering, especially in Southern Arizona.
“In the ADOT South Central District, which is a massively large district, the choices for litter pickup are those inmate crews, our Adopt A Highway programs and ADOT staff doing maintenance,” Nick said. “But their safety projects (guardrail repair, pavement repair) always take priority. So, they’re going to be limited in how much they can pick. Without the inmate crews at all, that’s the third leg of a three-legged stool that’s missing, and that’s a big loss.”
In gutters, ditches and along freeways, smaller pickup crews are also facing a surge of a new kind of trash particular to the COVID-19 era: discarded personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes.
‘Living the dream’
Both Van Dyken and Cal Verduin, a first-timer on the Green Valley Litter Patrol, are proud of their Dutch heritage, and attribute part of their devotion to litter clean-up efforts to its culture.
“There’s a saying we have in Dutch,” Verduian recalled, and translated. “If everybody sweeps their own porch, the whole street is clean.”
Both men see a need for new local or state-wide initiatives to keep litter off the streets and say the problem seems worse in Arizona than in other places. But, they agree they’ll be back next week to comb through their segment of I-19 once again.
With a few more large blue bags tied and ready for collection by ADOT crews – today’s count totaled 16 – the Green Valley Litter Patrol wrapped up their weekly shift just after 10:30 a.m., which qualifies as “overtime,” Van Dyken joked.
“I was thinking about what you said, Gene, about this being fun,” said Joy Lenz, a veteran volunteer with the Litter Patrol. “This isn’t fun. But it is satisfying to see the difference you’ve made, and it feels like we’re living the dream. Like we’re doing what we should be doing. It does feel good.”