Paying nonprofit groups for bags of litter they collect and other ways of cleaning up Wilkes County roadsides were discussed in an April 16 county commissioners meeting.

Commissioners indicated support for some strategies, but took no action and made no definite plans during the meeting.

Wilkes Solid Waste Director Anderia Byrd and Daniel Cranford, newly-hired county environmental enforcement officer, appeared before commissioners to raise the matter.

“We would like to touch on what we have in place, what we are implementing and what we can propose to help our county and the litter issue,” said Byrd. Education, enforcement and removal are the three main aspects of litter control, she added.

Byrd said the N.C. Department of Transportation used state prison inmates to clean up trash from along primary and secondary roads in the past, but now DOT hires private contractors for this work and usually only cleans up along primary roads.

She said this has caused litter to accumulate on the 1,164 miles of secondary roads in Wilkes. Primary roads in Wilkes are U.S. 421, U.S. 21, N.C. 16, N.C. 18, N.C. 268 and N.C. 115. “Through our research, we found that if enough complaints are reported to DOT, sometimes the DOT will use the contracted crew to clean secondary roads.”

Byrd said Wilkes is fortunate to have volunteers participating in the Adopt-A-Highway program, a new group called Clean Up Wilkes and other organizations removing trash from roadways. Adopt-A-Highway and Clean Up Wilkes representatives were in the audience at the April 16 meeting.

The DOT provides litter cleanup volunteers with free trash bags, safety vests, gloves and grabbers.

Byrd said trash collected by volunteer groups is accepted at no charge at the county landfill, but she asked commissioners for approval of paying $3 to $5 for each bag of this trash. “Surrounding counties have implemented a nonprofit pay program that requires these nonprofits to register with either the landfill or finance office in their county and we believe this would be successful in Wilkes,” she said.

Commissioners Gary Blevins and Eddie Settle said this sounds like a good idea.

Byrd said other surrounding counties utilize community service workers, who are people ordered by a judge to do volunteer work as part of their sentences, for removing roadside trash. “This program is available statewide and to our knowledge has not been applied in Wilkes.”

She asked the commissioners about adding more convenience centers for solid waste, in addition to the manned centers now on Mount Carmel Church Road in the Moravian Falls community, U.S. 421 in the Mount Pleasant community and on Grassy Fork Road in the Austin community. She said reducing the distance people must travel to dispose of garbage would reduce potential for losing trash from vehicles.

The commissioners didn’t respond to this request.

When Blevins asked Byrd how much the DOT pays contractors to pick up trash from primary roads, she said a local contractor who does this work said DOT paid him $41 per mile for primary roads and that he would charge about $70 per mile for secondary roads if he determined he could safely clean them.

She said the landfill department occasionally paid the same contractor to pick up trash from along some secondary roads in Wilkes.

Blevins and Keith Elmore, chairman of the commissioners, agreed that contractors should submit competitive bids for this work.

Blevins noted that $70 per mile would mean $70,000 for cleaning up along 1,000 miles of secondary roads in Wilkes.

He also pointed out that commissioners approved increasing the “tipping fee” (commercial garbage disposal fee) by $2 per ton a few years ago to establish a fund for cleaning up roadside trash. He said the money wasn’t used for this purpose for a period of time because county officials thought picking up trash was the state’s responsibility and didn’t want to set a precedent shifting this to the county.

If it’s clear that the state isn’t going to pick up trash from secondary roads, said Blevins, the county should use revenue from the $2 tipping fee hike to hire contractors for trash pickup along secondary roads. “That to me seems like the most effective thing to get the trash cleaned up.”

When Blevins asked Byrd to estimate revenue generated annually by a $2 increase in the tipping fee, Byrd estimated $120,000 based on about 60,000 tons of trash.

Byrd said the additional revenue has been used to help clean up large roadside dumps, which she said can include using heavy equipment, winches and large trash bins. Blevins said that’s a good use of the money.

He suggested raising the tipping fee another $2 to fund roadside trash removal and to pay for bags of roadside trash collected by nonprofit groups. “We’ve got to start hiring a crew to pick up this trash. I don’t think it will ever get picked up any other way.” He said telling people not to litter and signs won’t work. “We live in a trash filled society.”

Paying someone to pick up trash at least once but probably twice a year would pay dividends in tourism and pride in the community, Blevins added.

Cindy Fowler, an Adopt-A-Highway volunteer in the audience, credited Byrd and Cranford with responding to calls about roadside trash. “They do go and they go down steep banks and they clean up dumps,” she said. Fowler said she has cleaned up trash from the secondary road near her home under the Adopt-A-Highway program for 20 years.

“I am trying to get more grassroots ways to get people involved on my road and really look at the trash there. We have such a beautiful county and it just breaks my heart to see litter everywhere…. Some of your proposals seem really common sense. They don’t seem very costly,” she added.

Clean-Up Wilkes spokesman Cindy Mittet, also in the audience, said the group plans to pick up litter along N.C. 268 West from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 4 and from 2-5 p.m. May 5, with lunch served May 4. Participants will meet at the Wilkes Family YMCA. Mittet owns Wilderness Lodge near W. Kerr Scott Reservoir and said that with guests from around the world staying there, she is embarrassed by the litter on N.C. 268 West.

Clean-Up Wilkes volunteers also recently picked up trash along Browns Ford Road, which drew praise from Elmore during the meeting. 

Byrd said about 80 percent of the trash disposed in the county landfill in Roaring River is hauled there by commercial trash haulers. “We have contacted all major garbage haulers in the county, advising them to properly contain any debris” and recover any that leaves their trucks. “The majority of them are attempting to secure their loads.”

The county solid waste ordinance requires that vehicles and containers used for collecting and transporting solid waste be loaded and moved “in a manner that the contents will not fall, leak or spill, and shall be covered to prevent the blowing of material….”

The ordinance lets landfill staff decide if a load is adequately covered when it arrives at the landfill. Byrd and Cranford can write citations, but lack authority to stop vehicles and can’t demand to see a driver’s license if someone litters or has an uncovered load outside the landfill property since they aren’t sworn law enforcement officers.

She said residents who see garbage escaping from vehicles should contact law enforcement. “The highway patrol has told us that if someone sees garbage coming off vehicles and the witness is willing to testify in court, the case can be handled through the judicial system.”

Byrd said Cranford focuses mostly on residential/neighbor trash complaints and illegal roadside dumps. She said that in other counties, state wildlife enforcement agents are asked to file littering charges when they encounter violations.

Settle said big commercial trash trucks lose trash along roadsides. “And I don’t have an answer for that and I know you don’t either.”

Byrd responded, “All eyes need to be on board” and report it when they see someone losing trash along the roadway or with an uncovered trash load. “It takes all of us collaborating.”

Blevins said plastic tarps sometimes flop around and push trash out on roads if not tied down correctly. A few years ago, said Byrd, a North Carolina city began requiring that tarps on trash trucks be large enough to come down along the sides.

Settle recommended seeking permission to speak to school classrooms to discourage littering. He said communication is needed with the Wilkes Board of Education and the school superintendent.

Commissioner David Gambill agreed with Settle about the importance of education and said there was education on littering when he was in school, “but that kind of went away. We have missed a generation there.”

Gambill said he lives on N.C. 18 North and is on that road picking up trash three or four times a week. He said a lot of the problem with commercial haulers is that they’re using old trucks that don’t keep trash completely contained.

Byrd said she believes that there is a focus on littering and recycling in the third grade, but added that she’ll speak to any classroom if invited.

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