COLLECTION: Volunteer Waste Collector, The

Community cleanup programs are becoming as American as apple pie. Each year, communities across the country host cleanup projects along a littered trail, coastline or in conjunction with Earth Day. And volunteer cleanups provide the local waste industry and municipalities with an opportunity to donate services and make visible community contributions.

But how effective are these events? Actually, such programs mobilize thousands of volunteers and result in tons of trash being collected. For example, a community along the Minnesota River Valleys picked up 1,200 tons of waste last year. Every year, towns along the Illinois Prairie Path, a trail located 20 miles from Chicago, clean up the path's 61 miles. And this year, near Lynchburg, Va., a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Nick, along with his owner, have collected trash along their “adopted” highway.

Often, municipalities partner with the local waste industry for the good of the community. For example, the Keep America Beautiful organization, Stamford, Conn., mobilizes some 2 million volunteers to pick up trash and work on beautification projects. This has helped the organization create a connection with city governments. Each spring, Keep Western New York Beautiful, Buffalo, N.Y., participates in the Great American Cleanup to pick up trash. Jim Pavel, support services director for Buffalo's mayor's office, participates in the cleanup effort and uses his connection to ask the county's solid waste boards for funding. The money is used to fund the cleanup, as well as to purchase local television commercials and other publicity. And the advertising eventually spurred a local company to donate a dumpster and the Glad Co. to donate trash bags.

Pavel says that such private sector participation is a great way to educate the community about waste management. “Most people do not understand what private companies do or the importance of smartly managing solid waste,” he says. “Once you've taken away the foreign element, which is the idea that these solid waste companies are faceless … you have corporate executives working on the cleanup trail, and the community realizes that they have a common goal.”

To encourage waste haulers to participate, Pavel suggests that municipalities be armed with as much information about the cleanup project as possible, including suggestions for routing if hauling services have been donated. Waste haulers and recycling companies also should keep in touch with local environmental and beautification groups and city boards to find out when cleanups are scheduled and what services are needed. Most programs appreciate equipment donations or services. The Great American Cleanup places a particular emphasis on collecting recyclable materials, so donating recycling trucks and other services are welcomed.

“That's a goal, to collect as much recyclables at the source as possible,” says Walt Amacker, KAB's director of communications. “It's sometimes difficult to do that when you are giving people a [single] trash bag, but in some cases, municipalities bring in specific collection trucks to bring materials to the MRF [materials recovery facility].”

Another successful community program is the International Coastal Cleanup, which is organized by the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), Washington, D.C. The program has attracted major sponsors, including the American Plastics Council, Arlington, Va., and Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., which gave money to support the effort.

Since the CMC began in 1986, when 2,500 volunteers collected 124 tons of trash from a hundred miles of Texas shoreline, the program has expanded to 90 countries. Recently, volunteers collected 8.5 million pieces of debris. CMC trains its volunteers to categorize trash on data collection cards — indicating whether it's plastic, glass, rubber or metal — to help analyze pollution sources.

The Texas Adopt-a-Beach Fall Cleanup also is affiliated with the CMC program. Last year, 246,000 people collected more than 4,600 tons of waste along Texas shorelines. According to the General Land Office (GLO), Austin, Texas, which sponsors the event, the company has drawn support from the business sector with local waste companies donating trucks to haul trash to disposal sites.

The cleanup also has helped communities provide environmental education, spokesman John Kerr says. For example, a few years ago volunteers found a preponderance of plastic chemical light tubes washed up on the beach, which fishermen were using to lure fish. Although the practice continues, the program has raised awareness about the problem, Kerr says.

Perhaps the most daring cleanup program takes place not in the United States but on top of the world — Mount Everest. Corporations have forked over big bucks to send mountaineers on environmental expeditions to remove trash from the planet's highest peak, located in Nepal. Some have favored a new Nepalese program in which expedition teams are required to pay a $4,000 deposit before climbing. If they don't remove all their trash when they come down, they don't get the money back.

If our beaches and trails had a similar program, perhaps there wouldn't be a need for volunteers. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of citizens around the country will continue to pitch in.

If your community or organization is interested in donating hauling or recycling services and wants information about the Great American Cleanup, visit For more information about the International Coastal Cleanup, visit