Q&A: Volunteer Leonard Prive Picks Up Roadside Litter Between Underhill and Westfield | Stuck in Vermont | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Q&A: Volunteer Leonard Prive Picks Up Roadside Litter Between Underhill and Westfield


Published June 5, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Johnson resident Leonard Prive has always loved nature and keeping things clean. He worked as a custodian for the Burlington School District for 39 years before retiring in 2015. During the early days of the pandemic, Prive decided to get off his couch and pick up trash along Routes 15, 100C and 100 between Underhill and Westfield.

He begins his work when the snow melts and finishes by early May, when the greenery starts to obscure the garbage. During that time, Prive volunteers six to eight hours a day. Over the past few years, he's filled hundreds of bags with litter, which he leaves by the side of the road for the Vermont Agency of Transportation to collect. He works in the treacherous ravines along the roadways and has sometimes dragged up larger items, including a microwave, wet insulation and a fridge.

Seven Days senior multimedia producer Eva Sollberger met Prive in Johnson to catch a ride in his truck and watch him in action. He picked up pieces of a shattered plastic lawn chair and a blown-out tire along Route 100 in Eden, then gathered piles of burnt metal and plastic bottles from a beach along the Lamoille River in Johnson. In two hours, he'd set aside more than two bags of trash for VTrans. Prive hopes his work will inspire others to help keep the roadways clean.

Sollberger spoke with Seven Days about filming the episode.

How did you hear about Leonard Prive?

My coworker Alison Novak sent the office an email about him. They became friends about 18 years ago at the Sustainability Academy (then called Lawrence Barnes Elementary School) in Burlington, where he was a custodian and she was a teacher. Novak shared a recent Facebook post about Prive's volunteer work cleaning up the roadways. People really responded to it, and it got tons of comments from folks who supported his work or had seen him in action. I wanted to meet this person who was putting so much time and effort into improving our state.

What did Prive say when you got in touch?

I gave Prive a call in mid-May, and he told me that he had just finished his big spring cleanup. But I asked Prive if I could tag along for the tail end of his season, and he agreed. He wasn't sure if there would be enough trash to pick up, and I said this was a good problem to have.

Prive seems very dedicated.

He is a stoic gentleman who appreciates nature and wildlife. He figures that if you use these spaces, you should take care of them. Prive is frustrated that farmers' fields are polluted by airborne roadway trash, which can get caught in their hay. He worries about animals being attracted to the edible litter and getting hit by traffic. It's amazing how one bit of garbage thrown out a car window can do so much damage. On the plus side, Prive is very grateful to the workers at VTrans who clean our roadways and pick up his bags of trash. He says without their help, he could not do this work.

Did you learn any lessons?

I learned many things from spending an afternoon with Prive. Such as: Wet items are hard to haul; tires are extremely heavy; Styrofoam and plastic break into millions of tiny pieces when they hit the asphalt, which makes them difficult to retrieve; Prive uses 39-gallon trash bags; his truck is spotless; the sound of the metal grabber hitting the rubber trash can makes a satisfying twack. Even though we only spent two hours picking up trash, and he did all the work, I was weirdly tired from the experience. I can't imagine how he spends full days doing this.

How did you come up with your video title, "Trash Warrior"?

Winters can be long and dreary in Vermont, and when spring rolls around, the riot of green that rolls out across our countryside is a sight to behold. Wildflowers line the highways, and everything seems to be growing on steroids. Seeing litter amid the green along the highways is so disconcerting. It's the ultimate buzzkill. In one of our phone calls, Prive said it felt like he was fighting a losing battle. That is why I called the video "Trash Warrior." I am sure Prive would find this title a bit ridiculous, but I truly think he is fighting the good fight. I hope more people join in to help.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Talking Trash | Volunteer Leonard Prive picks up roadside litter between Underhill and Westfield"

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