Mismanaged trash harms habitats, transports chemical pollutants, threatens aquatic life and interferes with human uses of natural environments. In Appalachia, local residents and organizations are partnering to clean up the mess.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s 2019 annual report estimates there are 100 million pieces of litter on the state’s roads, which cost the state $15 million in taxpayer money in 2018. Approximately 18 percent of that trash is expected to end up in the state’s waterways. The Tennessee Valley Authority removed 230 tons of trash from the Tennessee River in 2018, and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation is asking for pictures of litter to be sent to tnwf.org/litter to raise awareness about the issue.
Other states in the Appalachian region experience similar quantities of litter. The Adopt-A-Highway program in North Carolina reported removing nearly one million pounds of trash in 2018. In Kentucky, volunteers for the Transportation Cabinet and Adopt-A-Highway programs spend 200,000 hours removing roughly 96,000 bags of trash annually. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality reported that 45,082 volunteers in 2018 cleaned up 72,571 cubic yards of litter. And this April in West Virginia, more than 9,500 volunteers cleaned up nearly 300 tons of litter with the Adopt-A-Highway and Make It Shine programs.
Mike Gray of Pendleton County, W.Va., volunteers with the Adopt-A-Highway program. For nine years he has focused on the area around Smoke Hole Canyon and Reed’s Creek, which he describes as heavily impacted. According to Gray, the trash has changed from disposed household appliances to mainly trash left behind by tourists, hunters and anglers. In 2017, Gray founded Friends of Smoke Hole, an alliance of climbers that organizes cleanups.
“I have three grandchildren to whom I hope to leave a legacy of cleaner crags, forests, and back roads, three mountain princesses who we are teaching to be true mountaineers,” Gray says.
Beyond the Adopt-A-Highway events, local efforts like Friends of Smoke Hole are helping to combat litter. Check with riverkeepers and nonprofit groups in your area for cleanups and keep an eye on the Appalachian Voices calendar at appvoices.org/calendar for cleanup events. — By Sam Kepple