Rusted tin cans, rotting carpets, refrigerators, a playground set, coffee makers, toilet seats, paint cans, deer carcasses stuffed into garbage cans, tons of household garbage, thousands of tires—the list reads like a cross between a town dump inventory and a tag sale. But instead, these items were hauled from culverts, quarries, riverbanks, roadside turnarounds and other illegal dumps throughout central Vermont. Now, through a program that personalizes the problem, some communities have reason to believe they’ve cleaned them up for the last time.
Vermont’s Adopt-A-Site is making a difference, one site at a time. “Every time we put up a sign, the community is saying it’s not OK to dump here anymore,” said Monica Mac, Adopt-A-Site coordinator for the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District. With 18 sites clean and staying that way, people seem to be listening.
Along steep drop-offs and back roads, illegal dumps dot the rural landscape. Such areas offer both easy access and anonymity. Add in the high legal disposal costs dumpers would face and the distance to landfills, and you have all the ingredients for a bad habit—one which grows potentially more dangerous all the time.
Illegal dumps can provide a breeding ground for rodents, disturb wildlife habitat and contaminate the soil and groundwater supply. Dumps near streams and rivers may be especially harmful, sending mercury from leaking batteries, pesticides from lawn products and other chemicals far downstream.
Experience has shown that just removing the garbage won’t stop people from dumping again. In response, Adopt-A-Site teams post and actively monitor them as well, “showing that someone cares about the sites on an on-going basis,” Mac says.
PA CleanWays, a nonprofit organization fighting illegal dumping and littering in Pennsylvania, follows a similar clean-and-monitor strategy. Its nine chapters have cleaned 85 illegal dumps and adopted 78 locally maintained roads in the past 10 years, removing 1,900 tons of trash—enough to fill 600 truckloads or a line of trucks three miles long.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that “illegal dumping is becoming a major problem in many communities in the U.S.,” so much so that cleaning them up could be an endless job—and isn’t the whole answer. “While cleaning sites is a priority, preventing further dumping is the higher priority,” says Liz Helrich, assistant Adopt-A-Site coordinator in Vermont.
To deter future dumpers, Sue Wiseman, PA CleanWays director, sees “public awareness, education and stewardship as the long-term solutions.”
The three-year-old Vermont Adopt-A-Site program is beginning to reap the results of just such an approach. “The only thing we found at one location this spring was a Christmas tree,” says Theresa Lambert, an Adopt-A-Site monitor. “It seems like it’s no longer a site for dumping.”