The day started out chilly and gray, but by noon, when the sun started peeking out behind the clouds, things looked much greener in and around Windham County.
The green many locals and visitors saw last Saturday came in the form of big trash bags, sprouting up on the side of nearly every town road in the state.
Approximately 20,000 Vermonters scatter every year on the first Saturday in May to collect more than 40,000 bags of trash from the state’s 15,793 miles of town roads.
At the hubs, where one or more volunteer organizers greet participants, distribute supplies, and send them on their way, organizers reported a good volunteer turnout this year, despite the clouds and drizzle.
In Guilford, coordinator Elly Majonen counted more than 70 volunteers from the town’s base of operations at Broad Brook Grange.
The most popular item volunteers found among the roadside trash was beer cans and bottles.
“Bud Light seems to be the winner,” said Majonen.
Cups, bags, and containers from fast food restaurants seemed to run a close second, she said.
The state Agency of Transportation provided the bright green bags for the volunteers, and some towns have protective gloves and bright safety vests for volunteers to wear.
In Guilford, volunteers were encouraged to bring their own gloves because, as Majonen explained, “Providing gloves just got too expensive.”
Ken and Cal Heile got to work and found a number of water bottles along Hinesburg and Bonnyvale Roads in West Brattleboro and Guilford.
“They were mostly full, with their caps still on. People must have tossed them out of their car windows,” Ken Heile said.
The Heiles expressed dismay at the waste but noted that they found slightly fewer water bottles this year.
Another observation this year: fewer slugs in cans. (“You’d shake the cans and hear them inside, then you’d shake them right out,” Cal Heile said.)
The couple also noticed something about one of Guilford’s neighboring towns.
“As soon as we went into Halifax, it was filled with garbage!” she said.
Majonen said volunteers also found quite a bit of drug paraphernalia, which was “sent over to the sheriff’s department.”
Jill Wood mentioned finding quite a few scratch-off lottery tickets along her stretch of Route 5.
“Wouldn’t it be great if they [the tickets] were biodegradable?” she observed.
The Heiles reported finding quite a few returnable bottles and cans. Because Guilford’s hub had no plan in place to redeem the returnables, the couple took it upon themselves to bring the bottles and cans home, rinse them out, and collect the nickels.
“Maybe we’ll get 50 cents!” exclaimed Ken Heile.
“Yeah, that’s parking [money] for downtown Brattleboro,” a bystander responded. “It may save you from getting a ticket!”
A Vermont tradition
Vermont’s Green Up Day, started in 1970, was inspired by a Burlington Free Press reporter, Robert S. Babcock Jr.
One March day, Babcock was driving to the newspaper’s Montpelier bureau. Along the span of road from his home in Waterbury, he noticed a proliferation of roadside trash revealed by the spring thaw.
The reporter visited then-Governor Deane C. Davis in the Statehouse and proposed the statewide effort, and the governor responded enthusiastically.
Since 1979, the effort has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Green Up Vermont, with the state appropriating a contribution through the Agency of Natural Resources. The bulk of the funding comes from private businesses and individuals.
Towns take care of getting rid of the garbage.
In Guilford, the town agreed to collect the bags, or attendees could bring their findings to the Broad Brook Grange, where they were separated into two flatbed trucks: one for green bags and general trash, the other for scrap metal.
Majonen explained that attendees were asked not to bring discarded tires back to the Grange because “last year it cost the town $500 just to get rid of the tires.”
A social dimension
Beyond the virtue of cleaning up the environment, coordinators and volunteers alike enjoyed the social aspect of Green Up Day.
Many participants described seeing friends and neighbors, some of whom have not been seen since the previous year’s effort.
Some hubs offered volunteers additional perks, such as Green Up Day stickers, and made sure they were well-fed.
At the Elliot Street location in Brattleboro, Robyn Flatley made homemade chai, a lightly-sweetened, Indian-style, hot spiced-tea drink, for volunteers to enjoy.
At Brattleboro Subaru — one of the four hubs in Brattleboro — Bob Grover stood at a grill, cooking 100 hot dogs and 70 hamburgers for volunteers.
And in Guilford, Don and Evelyn McLean provided attendees at the Broad Brook Grange hub with their homemade “Green Up Day” cupcakes, which were decorated with bright green frosting and dark green sugar sprinkles.
From La-Z-Boys to carrion
The day’s activities made volunteers aware of the cumulative impact of littering, noted Robin Rieske, another organizer at Brattleboro’s Elliot Street hub.
Dr. Rebecca Jones, who let the group use space in her dermatology office’s parking lot, reported an abundance of energy drink cans.
“Wouldn’t it be great if they had little homing devices on them so once people finished with them, they’d float back to the company that makes them?” Jones said.
Green Up Day participants found a number of unusual items.
In Brattleboro, they found a television, a full bag of clothing, and a “massaging La-Z-Boy recliner up on Summit Street.”
In Guilford, Carole Mills and her crew found “an unidentified animal spine” and a deer skull.
When a bystander asked to see the deer skull, Mills revealed that it was too late.
“I already brought that one home,” she said. “It’s going up on the wall next to the raccoon I found in a previous year.”