Trash talk: Highway adopters say littering worse than ever

George Michie has been picking up trash for nearly 20 years on Miller School Road, and here, on U.S. 250 west.
Photo: Jeffrey Gleason George Michie has been picking up trash for nearly 20 years on Miller School Road, and here, on U.S. 250 west. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

There’s a famous scene from “Mad Men” in which the Draper family goes on a picnic. Afterward, Don tosses his beer can on the ground and Betty shakes the tablecloth out and leaves the trash from their outing, a not uncommon occurrence in that era before Lady Bird Johnson joined the Keep America Beautiful campaign in 1965 and PSAs urged citizens to “please, please don’t be a litterbug.”

For a Crozet couple, it might be time to launch that campaign again.

Miette and George Michie estimate they’ve picked up more than a ton of trash over the past 18 years on the stretch of Miller School Road they adopted—and that’s not counting tires or large pieces of debris that don’t fit into trash bags. Yet they say more people than ever are using the road as their personal garbage can.

Miette Michie says the amount of litter on roads has worsened. Photo Jeffrey Gleason

“It’s just ridiculous,” says Miette Michie. “We cleaned up the road three weeks ago, picking up literally 12 bags, and it needs to be done again. Who are these people?”

And it’s not just rural roads. She’s taken photos of litter in the city, on the U.S. 29 Bypass and pretty much everywhere she drives.  “I don’t think there is a 10-foot section of roadway anywhere in the area that is litter-free,” she says. “Disgusting.”

Michie has lodged complaints with Charlottesville and Albemarle officials, and she’d like to see more public awareness of just how trashy an area known for its natural beauty has become.

She points to a program in Albuquerque, whose mayor started paying panhandlers to pick up trash, and she thinks it’s an idea that could work here.

Charlottesville Public Works Director Paul Oberdorfer, in an email to Michie, says, “I agree there has been a notable increase in litter.” He says public works and parks & rec both work on litter control, and hire seasonal workers to help out.

Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail recently implemented two inmate programs that try to stem the tide of rising refuse. Last month, the Virginia Department of Transportation started funding a program for men to go out on weekends to pick up trash. Albemarle County pays for a similar program in which female inmates go out a couple of times a week to clear county roads, says Superintendent Martin Kumer.

The inmates pick up around two tons a week. “We weigh the trash,” says Kumer.

He calls the program a “win-win” for everyone. The agencies pay for one jail staffer to go out with a crew of up to five inmates. And the inmates themselves receive a credit of $7.25 an hour to go toward their court costs and fines.

Some areas have to be picked up more often, and Kumer says Route 20 at Piedmont Virginia Community College is one of the worst, and the U.S. 29 Bypass and Ivy Road are also “really bad.”

Virginia’s volunteer pick-up program, Adopt-a-Highway, started in 1988, and the VDOT website boasts that it’s “one of the largest programs in the country.”

However, it’s unclear how viable the program currently is. C-VILLE Weekly contacted VDOT for more than two weeks without any success in reaching anyone involved in the program.

For those who attempt to adopt a highway, they’re asked to be responsible for a two-mile stretch and pick up trash at least two times a year for three years. VDOT supplies safety vests and orange trash bags. After two documented pickups, volunteers can get an Adopt-a-Highway sign with their names on it, according to the VDOT website.

“I don’t know how effective the VDOT program is,” says Michie. “We’ve never gotten a renewal in 18 years.”

Most volunteers get some satisfaction for their efforts, but picking up roadside trash isn’t necessarily one of them. “It’s the one thing that after you do it, you get more mad,” says Michie. “Other [volunteer activities] are uplifting.”

She concedes Miller School Road is on the way to the dump, but says the number of beer cans and bottles belie a few items flying off a vehicle on a dump run.

About the litterers, Michie is left wondering, “What is wrong with these people?”

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