Car parts, deer parts. Face masks blowing in the wind.
About 38 volunteer groups have taken on the responsibility of picking up other people’s trash along highways in La Plata County.
The groups registered for cleanup duty through the Colorado Department of Transportation highway adoption and sponsorship programs. Drivers might see their efforts acknowledged on Adopt-a-Highway signs along roadsides.
The task can be gross, dangerous and enriching – the odd $20 bill has been found by a few volunteers, and the advertising boost of having your organization’s name on a highway sign doesn’t hurt. Sometimes there aren’t enough volunteers to keep up the effort, or getting started is a challenge.
But volunteers say it’s worth it for a chance to give back to their community.
“The advertising is a small part of it. But since we’ve been doing it, a big part of it is that when I’m out there actually working the highway, the other business owners ... will stop and thank me for cleaning that stretch of highway,” said Chris Lopez, co-owner of the Singletrack Cafe in Durango. “That brings me a big sense of pride.”
CDOT offers opportunities for organizations to get out and do a cleanup themselves through the Spruce Up Colorado Adopt-a-Highway Program. Or they can sponsor a section of the highway through the state’s Clean Colorado sponsorship program.
In 2020, CDOT disposed of 68,674 cubic yards of trash with help from 4,673 Adopt-a-Highway volunteers statewide. An additional 8,218 cubic yards of trash was collected and disposed of with the support of 265 corporate sponsors, said Lisa Schwantes, CDOT spokeswoman.
The Adopt-a-Highway volunteer program is the popular option in La Plata County, CDOT said.
Some of the volunteers are former CDOT employees. Most are families, youth organizations or service organizations. They commit to at least two cleanups per year with trash bags, safety tips and safety vests provided by CDOT.
Their highway signs can be spotted along state highways 3 and 172, U.S. highways 160 and 550 and other arterial roads.
“Our volunteers seem to be pretty devoted to taking care of their sections of the highways,” said Rena Cole, the program’s coordinator for Southwest Colorado.
Many groups take to the roadsides because of a philosophy of volunteerism in their organization. Some do it to honor a community member who passed away. Seniors Outdoors! did it for several years to help the environment.
“We use the 550 corridor a lot. We hike, we snowshoe and we ski. So we’re always looking at things,” said Kevin Conroy, the group’s secretary. The group picks up litter along U.S. Highway 550 between Durango and Silverton. “If we’re using it, our attitude is to try to maintain it and keep it in as good of shape as possible.”
Russell Planning and Engineering did highway cleanups for seven years before merging with Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. They made a day out of it as a team-building exercise and for the sake of volunteerism, said Mike Russell.
“We made it a fun event. We’d go so far as to have little prizes for the most unique thing found, the grossest thing found,” he said. “A few people found some money, so that made it worthwhile. Definitely mystery things we didn’t even open because they looked disgusting. We found lots of car parts and broken cellphones that were no good anymore.”
CDOT warns each group that mystery items could actually be discarded parts of meth labs.
Several La Plata County Rotary Clubs do annual cleanups. It’s part of the Rotary International goals for service and environmental care, said McKenzie Perdue, president of the Rotary Club of Durango Daybreak. They’ve found beer cans, Red Bull cans, car parts and roadkill, she said.
“It’s not only cleaning up the environment, it’s also about raising awareness,” Perdue said.
Some volunteer groups have said waste has increased over the years as road traffic has increased.
Cleanup efforts can also lapse when groups don’t get volunteers or renew their participation. For one Durango business, Prohibition Herb, just getting started was the challenge.
The marijuana dispensary wanted to join the Clean Colorado sponsorship program, which is managed by a national organization, Adopt a Highway Maintenance Corp. It started the registration process in the winter of 2017-18.
At first it had a wide selection of potential highway stretches to sponsor, but after working with the city and the county, the list shrank. The process left the owners feeling like their marijuana-based business wasn’t welcome in the program, said co-owner Wes Drobney.
In 2020, several sponsorship signs were placed around the county at a cost of about $467 per month per sign, Drobney said.
“It was just a natural fit to try to keep the highways clean in Southwest Colorado,” Drobney said. “The beauty of our space is one of the big reasons why people come to the area.”
The program has provided an opportunity for the company to do charitable work, particularly when other organizations have rejected their donations “out of paranoia that the money is illegal or something like that,” he said.
“When I go by, I’m amazed at how much trash they’re able to clean up,” he said.
Along Highway 3, Lopez regularly checks to see how much trash has built up. He has seen face masks blowing in the wind, found a $20 bill, and spotted trash and car parts left over from crashes. When litter builds up, he and his wife go clean it up.
“I feel a sense of pride when I’m out there doing the work,” Lopez said. “It makes me feel that I’m part of the community. It’s a wonderful program.”