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I wanted a litter-free highway, so I adopted one. Here's how you can do the same

'People start pollution. People can stop it.'
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-03 12:00:20-05

If, when you see drivers carelessly toss cigarette butts out of their cars you want to yell at them, I think we'd get along famously.

I hate littering. And for that I blame this commercial that aired when I was a boy. It features an American Indian who cries when a bag of trash is tossed from a car and lands at his feet.

"Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country," the announcer intones. "And some people don't. People start pollution. People can stop it."

(Why don't networks air public-service announcements like this anymore? Did the FCC stop making them? They work!)

My hatred of litter is one reason why I've adopted a highway -- two miles of Idlewild Road, near my home in Burlington, Kentucky. I signed a contract to pick up trash beside the road, at least once a quarter for two years, with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which oversees the state's Adopt-a-Highway program.

It takes about two hours to do, and I usually collect about a bagful of trash. When I'm done, I let Nancy Wood, the program coordinator for District 8, know how much I've collected so she can add it to her yearly total.

As of Dec. 22, the 86 Adopt-a-Highway groups in District 8 had picked up 3,561 bags of trash, the most since at least 2012, when 4,536 bags were picked up. (District 8 comprises Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant, Bracken, Owen, Harrison, Carroll, Pendleton and Robertson counties)

There's probably no cleaner stretch of highway among those 11 counties than Ky. 1072 -- that's Highland Avenue -- from Magellan Road to Kyles Lane in Kenton County. Ed Bishop adopted it in 2014, and in 2015 alone, he cleaned up 28 times.

Bishop, 74, a disabled Vietnam war veteran, adopted the highway because his doctor advised him he needed to walk more -- and he hates just walking. He's also a neat person who likes things in their proper places.

"I just hate people who drive down the street and throw out trash," he said. "I pick up their food and beer cans. That tells me they're drinking and driving. They're throwing a can out the window and getting another, and that's downright scary."

If only there were more people like Ed in Kenton County. It has 321 state highway miles, the most of any county in District 8, but only 10 percent of them have been adopted.

That's not the worst percentage in the district, however. Owen County, which has a surprising 239 miles of state highway, has only 2 percent of those miles adopted. The best percentages belong to Harrison, at 86 percent, and Pendleton, at 82 percent.

Wood doesn't know why some counties have embraced the program more than others, but she did offer an explanation for Pendleton County. It gives money to groups willing to adopt highways -- a very practical recruitment tool.

Pendleton County uses about $26,000 it receives every year from the state for solid-waste disposal, said County Judge-Executive David Fields, and it pays the adopting organizations a per-mile fee. The only restriction is that they must be nonprofits. It helps them because it's a steady revenue stream, he said, and it also helps the county keep litter at bay.

Wood, who has other duties, doesn't have time to recruit volunteers for the Adopt-a-Highway program, but she does recognize the work of existing volunteers on the District's Facebook page.

The program only covers state highways, so there are plenty of county roads and interstate highways that will never get adopted.

In Ohio, the requirements for adopting a highway are the same as in Kentucky, except that volunteers may also opt to adopt a section of interstate highway. There are 104 groups in the program in Southwest Ohio, said Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Cunningham.

In 2015, Adopt-a-Highway volunteers collected 820 bags in Hamilton County, 557 in Clermont County and 306 in Warren County.

Statewide, Ohio spends about $4 million a year picking up trash, about $1 million of that in the Southwest Ohio region, he said. That includes money that the state pays to the Lebanon Correctional Institute to have prisoners pick up trash along the highways, he said.

The beauty of the Adopt-A-Highway program is that because the workers are volunteers, the costs to the state are minimal, Cunningham said. It pays for the bags, for safety vests the volunteers wear and for the signs that designate their adopted highway.

These statewide programs also have value as a way for citizens to give back, said Keith Buckhout, the statewide Adopt-A-Highway coordinator for Kentucky.

"I really do think of Adopt-a-Highway as a Kennedy inaugural program," he said. "It's not the state doing something for you. It's you doing something for your state."

Is the trash problem on state highways getting worse or better?

Neither Wood, Cunningham nor Buckhout had a good, quantifiable answer to that question.

"It is a problem, it has been and it continues to be," Cunningham said. "We constantly fight this battle of other people's trash becoming our problem … and it's largely one that could be prevented."

You, too, can show your "deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country" by calling Wood at 859-341-2700 to adopt a Kentucky highway. In Southwest Ohio, call Jennifer Henderson at 513-933-6685.