sueEditor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty series, in which professors discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Kiersten Newtoff is an assistant professor of biology at Montgomery College.
By Kiersten Newtoff
On a balmy July day in 2018, three MC students and I headed to Middlebrook Road, just off the Germantown Campus grounds, to pick up trash. We were wearing bright orange vests and equipped with gloves and pick-up sticks. We picked up trash for only a half hour before the immense heat sent us back. Despite the short amount of time, we collected two bags of trash, including cigarette butts, water bottles, beer cans, Styrofoam food containers, and–believe it or not–car parts.
Although I would like to say we were just four “do-gooders” cleaning up trash on a whim, we were working on behalf of Montgomery County, volunteering for an Adopt-a-Road segment. Montgomery College’s Adopt-A-Road is a section of Middlebrook Road between Amaranth Drive and Frederick Road, nearly one mile in length. As an adoptee of this road segment, the College agrees to pick-up trash at least six times during the year. Last year, we conducted nine clean-ups involving more than 50 students and gathering more than 73 bags of waste. Often when students sign up, they are motivated by the extra credit points they’ll earn, but when they return they feel proud to have served their community.
Once a month, I take about 12 students out to the road and divide them into four groups. Each group gets a cart, trash bags, gloves, reflective vests, and pick-up sticks. We then spread out and start at each end of the segment, on each side of the road, and work our way back to the middle. We gather the bags and take a group picture before notifying 311—Montgomery County’s phone number for non-emergency government information and services—to pick up the bags of trash.
Last year, we conducted nine clean-ups involving more than 50 students and gathering more than 73 bags of waste.
Students in my Environmental Biology (BIOL 105) course learn the importance of cleaning up trash during class. The lessons point out that while picking up trash from public places improves the aesthetics of our county, the primary goal is to prevent pollution from entering our waterways. Trash on sidewalks and in roadways can harm organisms that eat it, but trash in waterways has an even more damaging effect.
During a rainstorm, water washes over surfaces and carries along pollutants as it travels into a storm drain. In most areas of the United States, water in storm drains is not treated; it goes directly into a water body. Pollutants (including spilled liquids such as oil and antifreeze) contaminate the water. In our area, contaminated water eventually drains into the Chesapeake Bay. Although one solution may be to treat the storm water, reality is a bit more complicated. In Montgomery County, the amount of impervious surface- such as paved areas, roadways, and rooftops-would overwhelm any treatment facility and flood during a storm event.
From my experience working with student volunteers, students who join the clean-ups, and are in the environmental course, are impacted the most. They learn about pollution in class and then they go out and see the pollution sitting just outside the walls of the College. At the end of the day, students are proud of how much trash they pick up, but are also disappointed at the amount of trash out there. My goal is that they take the experience, share it with others, and cause positive change in our community.
Anyone interested in adopting a road in Montgomery County, should head to this website. Individuals, families, and organizations can adopt road segments. The county provides some materials to get you started, including gloves, reflective vests, trash bags, and pick-up sticks. To get involved with Montgomery College’s Adopt-a-Road, please send me an email: Kiersten.firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to have others join clean-ups I run or to support a group who wishes to do a one-time clean up.