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Picking up an anti-littering ethic

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Lisa Hamilton, left, leads middle school students Lilly Kennedy, Ruby McShane and Hannah Kennedy  in picking up rubbish in Northwest Portland during a recent SOLVE event.  When Lilio Aragones goes out picking up trash on a Saturday morning in Northwest Portland, she makes sure she looks good. Ball cap from the tony Mission Ranch in Carmel; North Face jacket; nice shoes.

A flight attendant with Delta Airlines, the Northwest Hills resident has been picking up trash, unasked, for decades, first in Hollywood, Calif., while growing up, and now in Northwest Portland around Trader Joe’s. 

“I dress so people don’t think I’m homeless,” Aragones says with a chuckle, as she wrestles with one of a dozen cigarette butts with her trash-grabbing stick. She moves at a steady pace, not bothering much with the Sisyphean task of the butts, rather going for the big game: bags, bottles and printed matter.

She does it simply because she loves Portland and wants to keep it pretty.

“How can people be so disrespectful?” Aragones asks of the litter bugs. “I’ve come to the conclusion it’s the same people over and over. The average person is more considerate, certainly here in Portland.”

Much of the credit for our anti-litter ethic surely goes to SOLVE, the environmental cleanup organization formed in 1969 under Gov. Tom McCall as Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism. The group, which later added an E at the end of its name for simplicity’s sake, is celebrating three anniversaries this year: the 25th year of its Earth Day cleanups in urban areas, called SOLVE IT; its 30th year of doing beach cleanups on the Oregon Coast; and the 45th year since its founding.

Twice a month, Northwest District Association members Phil Selinger and Rob Fullmer organize two different volunteer trash pickups. The bags are provided by SOLVE, which sends armies of citizens to Oregon’s 427 miles of coastline twice a year to pick up trash. 

In 1990, SOLV IT was created to clean up Portland-area neighborhoods and address the problem of illegal dumpsites. It became the largest Earth Day cleanup in the United States.

“SOLVE is a remarkable holdover from the days of Tom McCall; it’s a child of the bottle bill,” says Jack McGowan. He and his wife, Jan, ran SOLVE for two decades from Hillsboro, before moving into semi-retirement in Bend. “McCall wanted to create a volunteer spirit in Oregon,” McGowan says. “He could not stand armchair quarterbacks. Don’t just complain, do something.”

McGowan was a TV reporter with KGW when he took over SOLV in 1990. It had “no employees, no office, no phone, a lone P.O. box and $12,000 in the bank.” It expanded into wetlands and river restoration, as well as fighting illegal dumping all over the state. 

Part of the success of SOLVE is what McGowan calls “the care and feeding of volunteers — the spiritual feeding of how they feel about themselves and their community. We never take our volunteers for granted.”

Culture change

McGowan says the old slogans — Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute and Keep Oregon Green — need reformulating for today’s Oregonians.

“There’s no excuse for pollution any more. Where once the racist joke was laughed at, now for the most part they’re frowned upon. The person who throws a fast-food wrapper from a car, that’s no subconscious thing, it’s a choice.”

SOLVE IT volunteers pulled out around 50,000 dumped tires in the tricounty area in his day. Dumping still goes on. He knows where old mattresses, appliances, couches and pesticides get tossed down ravines in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

McGowan worries about the coast: ships dumping their trash in Oregon waters and billions of plastic pellets called nurdles washing up on the sand.  

Angela Stewart is an interpretive park ranger based at Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, in Southern Oregon. She’s been involved with SOLVE since 1986, and has noticed how on some beaches, even pristine ones like Harris, she sees pulverized plastic falling through her fingers with the sand. 

“SOLVE’s not just an event; it’s instilled in Oregonians,” she says. “When I take school kids on a tide pool walk, on the way back I hand out bags and ask if they’ll clean up. I’ve never had one say no.”

Stewart turns in water bottles for the deposit, using the money for the Junior Ranger program. It’s only education and peer pressure that can change the situation. “I’ve noticed that when someone does drop trash, people here will give them a scowl.”

Don’t toss that, Don

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wayne Wirta and Rob Fullmer volunteer at the regular SOLVE cleanup event in Northwest Portland. There’s a scene in the TV drama “Mad Men” where Don Draper and his picture-perfect family have a picnic. As they head back to their car, Draper throws his beer can deep into the park like a football, and his wife shakes all their trash from the blanket on to the grass. ( Watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=roREnVhd_og&feature=youtu.be )

It’s a head-slapping moment from our perspective, the implication being people today would never do that. But, like smoking tobacco, littering still hangs on. 

“I see a lot of fast-food wrappers. People toss them from their cars,” says Selinger, who patrols the area around Northwest Thurman Street and 23rd Avenue. “And Styrofoam popcorn. I think it blows out of the back of trucks without people noticing.”

Other common finds are tissues, clothes and transit tickets. He has hauled many a tire out of the bushes along Skyline Road, a hot spot for surreptitious dumping. One time he found a half-can of hydrochloric acid.

Selinger started out collecting trash on his own, but found he was self-conscious and it was boring. So in 2008 he teamed with SOLVE and Food Front co-op to make it a community event. After doing their hour, the eight or nine regulars get free snacks at Food Front and visit awhile. “I don’t know who’ll show up. We’ve had school groups as well as law violators,” Selinger says.

Littering seems to be one of those low-impact offenses that it takes thousands of people to commit, and hundreds to remedy. That could be why the SOLVE volunteer ethos is Oregon’s only chance of beating it.    

On that bright Saturday morning near Elephant’s Deli, Lisa Hamilton was out with her daughter, Ruby McShane, and her West Sylvan Middle School friends Lilly and Hannah Kennedy. For the eighth-graders, it was a school community service requirement, but they were totally enjoying themselves.

“Last week we found some roadkill that Mom thought was a mop,” McShane says. 

“I found a real collection of things, a No. 10 bottle cap, a huge piece of glass, a penny, a cup, a tennis ball, a ticket ...” says Lilly Kennedy. She has her limits, though. “I won’t pick up dog poop or roadkill.” 

“We’re finding a lot of Trader Joe’s bags,” Hamilton says. “And last week Vaughan Street was all bottles and cans. There’s a lot of partying ‘round there.”

Back at Elephant’s, Fullman notes that 21 volunteers collected around 700 pounds of trash in an hour, which went into the Trader Joe’s Dumpster. “The rest of the neighborhood won’t do it, so we do it.”