By Mitch Talley Whitfield County director of communications
A year has 8,760 hours.
Would you be willing to spare four of them?
That’s all it would take to do your part to keep Whitfield County cleaner through the Adopt-a-Mile program organized by Keep Dalton-Whitfield Beautiful.
“Depending on the road you choose and how many people you have working with you, it doesn’t usually take too long to clean up a mile,” says Liz Swafford, executive director of Keep Dalton-Whitfield Beautiful.
“The majority of the groups are able to clean up their mile of roadway in an hour,” she said. “It’s not a huge commitment — it’s really not. And once you get through the first cleanup, it’s just easier to keep doing it because you know what to expect, you know the road, and it’s already been cleaned up before, so the next time you go out there you may see fewer bags of trash.”
With some 800 miles of roads in Whitfield County, there’s definitely not a shortage of roads to clean up. Once a group has decided which mile to adopt, officials ask that the volunteers pick up litter along that stretch of road at least once every three months.
Those volunteers can include churches, civic organizations and even families who want to make a difference in how their community looks not only to local residents, but also to visitors.
“Keep America Beautiful has done studies that show a place where there is no litter or very little litter attracts no new litter,” Swafford says, “and a place that’s already littered and looks like a dump is going to attract even more trash. So we’ve got to keep the places here that are clean, clean, and clean up the places that need help.”
One of the ways to do that is through the Adopt-a-Mile program.
“A community that’s clean and that’s beautiful has lots of benefits,” Swafford says. “There’s quality of life benefits because everybody wants to live in a great, beautiful community, and there’s also economic benefits because a clean community attracts businesses.”
Adopt-a-Mile is a flexible program for participants.
“Once you’ve decided on a road to clean up,” Swafford says, “you choose the date and time, you choose the number of participants. It’s all up to you.”
One local church, for example, does its cleanup right after a service on Sunday, since members are already there.
“Keep Dalton-Whitfield Beautiful is here to support you and enable you to do something good for the community, to clean and beautify the community,” Swafford says.
KDWB will provide free supplies like large garbage bags, along with road signs that warn traffic of the cleanup in progress. Organizations are asked to send in a report after each cleanup successfully completed; the reports help show which participating groups are active, and the overall impact of everyone’s cleanup efforts.
Once a group has completed two cleanups within six months, it qualifies for permanent signs with the adopting organization’s name at both the beginning and the end of the mile, letting others in the community know that it is responsible for cleaning up that area.
“We’re happy that we have people that want to volunteer to clean up litter and that they care enough about the environment, but we want to make sure they are safe, too,” Swafford says, pointing out that roads are screened ahead of time to make sure they are safe for participants to clean.
Chris Hester is glad to see the roadsides cleaned up, too. He’s the stormwater coordinator for Whitfield County and says “anything we can remove from the roadside is not getting into the creeks or streams.”
It’s his job to make sure the county lives up to its state stormwater permit that says “we have to show we are doing something either to prevent litter or clean it up,” Hester says. “Ultimately, preventing it would be the best route.”
Along those lines, Swafford says the most littered item in the United States isn’t very large. Despite the fact that cigarette smoking has decreased 28 percent in America, the No. 1 littered item remains cigarette butts, with tobacco products in general comprising 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter.
“If you want to smoke, that’s up to you,” she says, “but when you throw that cigarette butt out, the filter that’s left is toxic and it spews out toxic chemicals into the environment. You may say it’s just one cigarette, it’s no big deal. But somebody else is going to come along and do the same thing, and it accumulates over time.”
Hester’s department has posted signs in key areas near creeks and streams, warning people not to litter in those areas because ultimately the litter could get into the water and create a health hazard for others.
Swafford says about 15 to 20 miles of roadsides are cleaned up in Whitfield County each year, thanks to the Adopt-a-Mile program, but emphasizes that there’s always room to grow.
“This year, we’d like to encourage the community to participate and adopt a road,” she says. “And if you have adopted a road in the past, we’d like to see you get involved again.”
She says litter surveys of Whitfield County have found that most local roads are not littered too badly.
“We will admit of course there are places where maybe illegal dumping has happened or there may be places that are severely littered that no one is taking care of them,” she says. “We can’t deny that each community has that, but overall Whitfield County is doing really well in terms of its beautification.”
The key is getting people in the right mindset so that they don’t even think about littering.
“We need to make people aware that once they throw something away, it doesn’t disappear into the magical land of Away and there’s no trash fairy that’s going to come and pick up your trash,” Swafford says. “It’s still there, and it still exists long after you’re gone.”
Littering is a bad cycle, Hester points out, “and if you can break the cycle, hopefully people will realize that our community is nice and clean and let’s keep it that way. It’s a change in mentality, more than anything.”
In fact, Keep America Beautiful calls it the broken window theory.
“They did a big study on blighted homes, blighted neighborhoods,” Swafford says. “They found if a home has been abandoned and windows broken, there are things piling up on the front yard, it just attracts more and more garbage and it can attract bad elements into the neighborhood.”
Litter prevention is a quality of life issue, above all else.
“When people are proud of the place they live, they put their energy into keeping it beautiful,” Swafford says. “And they’re more likely to be happy where they live.”