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The dirty job that someone has to do


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

I admit, I tried to get out of it.

After all, there are plenty of things I would rather do with my Saturday morning than collect old beer bottles, muddied cellophane wrappers and scraps of weathered paper that have accumulated along the roadside.

So I was not thrilled when my editor told me two months ago that it was my job to organize the clean-up efforts for the Times' Adopt-a-Highway road that has been neglected since my predecessor left last year.

My editor offered some weak explanation that because this is a county program, it falls to the county reporter to lead the crew. My efforts to pawn it off on the environmental reporter (scattered trash is bad for the environment, right?) failed.

I rounded up a half-dozen co-workers, gave them the orange vests that the county provides to these groups, donned thick gloves and spent about two hours last week collecting trash along Independence Highway. Then I watched the following Monday as strong gusts of wind carried stray plastic bags and other debris to the street we had just cleaned.

As I worked out some sore muscles and searched in vain for the pager that I lost along the way, part of me groused that litter patrol is a thankless task. When I heard that our pickup brought about 200 pounds of trash off the street, another part of me felt that at least we were making a difference.

Perhaps the most striking thing about picking up trash piece by piece is seeing the everyday carelessness that creates the litter problem. I couldn't help but think that this Pepsi can was pitched by a driver who was too lazy to throw it away at home, or this Bubble Yum wrapper came from a kid who didn't try to find a trash can. It bothered me that one homeowner's yard sale sign from last August became my mess to clean up.

I won't pick on the driver who left his rusted gas tank, apparently from some car, along the road because obviously he has bigger problems.

But I will say that in most cases, it seems to be the little decisions -- the times when people make the convenient choice instead of the considerate one -- that turn our streets into trash alleys.

Compared to the monumental growth and environmental issues facing Citrus County, roadside litter may seem like a minor issue. But it strikes a nerve, just as potholes and overgrown right of ways do, because it is one of the everyday ways in which people see exactly what local government is (or isn't) doing for them.

No doubt, city and county officials have a large role to play. None of us could clean up the 2,600 miles of public roads on our own. But shrugging our shoulders and leaving it to the county to always pick up after us? That also seems a little too convenient.

There is something to be said for taking the considerate route, though it is by no means glamorous. In my two hours of roadside trash cleanup, I was introduced to the sickening smell of warmed-over, months-old beer, and I managed to disrupt a fire ant colony that was using a piece of sun-bleached cardboard for its roof.

But when we finished that morning, I left with a sense of satisfaction that a few hours of my time made one road a cleaner place.

After finding other people's food wrappers, cigarette butts and shards of a broken car bumper, I just wished I could have found my pager, too.

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