Vermont's annual deployment of volunteer litter-pickers is a green dream come true: Thousands of citizens turned out last Saturday to pick up an estimated 30,000 bags of roadside trash, as they have every spring since Governor Deane Davis came up with the idea 36 years ago.
But there's more to it than that -- more beer cans, cigarette butts and gum wrappers, that is. Before and after Green-Up Day, who gathers the rest of the refuse? The answer is a combination of transportation maintenance crews, volunteer state workers and, in certain parts of the Northeast Kingdom, prison labor. So far this year, all of the above have logged 26,886 hours picking up 227.5 tons of garbage along state and federal highways.
The Interstate was closed on the first Green-Up Day, in 1970, so citizens could pick it clean. Not anymore. Those orange-vested trash collectors you see along 89 and 91 are professionals, and they were driving plows on the same routes not that long ago. The state employs about 500 full-time maintenance workers to perform a variety of tasks, depending on the season, explains VTrans' Laurel LaFramboise. "They plow in the winter; in the spring they pick up litter. In the summer, they fill potholes, wash bridges and do other maintenance projects. In the fall, there is brush clearing."
Litter-picking, which lasts for at least a month and this year cost the state $554,245, is not a big favorite. So in areas where correctional labor is available, minimum-security prisoners -- and people working off community-service sentences -- are enlisted. The work force around St. Johnsbury avails itself of a nearby work camp. A community-service program supplies able bodies in the Newport-Derby region.
"Anything we can have them do frees us up to do something else, like ditching, putting in guardrails," says Transportation Manager Dale Perron, who oversees the only two districts in Vermont -- out of nine in the state -- that put prisoners to work. The Department of Fish and Wildlife takes similar advantage of corrections labor. As the season progresses, "It gets harder and harder for us to get 'em," Perron says.
The price sure is right. No money changes hands. "It's a barter situation," says Ken Leach of VTrans in St. Johnsbury, who makes the prison-labor arrangements; a day's work by a crew is valued at about $200. In exchange, VTrans maintains the roadways up to and around the minimum-security work camp. "Figuring the number of days they pick litter, times $200 a day, is $6000," Leach says. "That's about what we put into maintaining the drive."
Forget the chain-gang image. There are no handcuffs or orange coveralls involved. "It's outdoor work, and most of them jump at the chance to get out and do that kind of thing," Leach says. "Generally speaking, they are very good workers. That's my observation." Sounds like a win-win situation -- minus the Green-Up shirts.