It was a Friday, but not your typical Friday at Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC). On this day there was a tinge of anxiety in the air, with police cars and officers in uniform waiting on campus. Numerous students, staff, and faculty stood around the fountain as the college's president looked on in anticipation of the pending events. It was already hot and humid in the 9 a.m. Carolina sun, and amazingly busy for a Friday morning at CCTC—a day when usually there are no scheduled classes and students take the opportunity to hit the snooze button. However, this atypical Friday at CCTC signaled the start of a rewarding journey toward environmental improvement along with a degree of practical environmental literacy.

The Friday morning described above marked the inaugural trash pickup for the Adopt-A-Highway program, a collaborative event between two of the campus's clubs: the CCTC Biology Club and Phi Theta Kappa (PTK). The trash pickup involved almost 30 volunteers, including students, faculty, and staff of CCTC. The cleanup teams were given orange South Carolina Department of Transportation bags and green recycling bags for their mission to enhance an unkept three-mile stretch of highway in the city of Sumter. The task set before this group was daunting – the area in question had required attention for some time. However, spirits that morning were high, with the improvement of the local environment at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Immediately, many of the volunteers felt that they had bit off more than they could chew. As numerous orange bags were filled, those once-high spirits were deflating, with more than one person commenting on the amount of trash yet to be collected. The volunteers almost immediately realized that the amount of litter along the highway might be insurmountable; however, they all agreed they would not quit. Children from the elementary schools along the highway came out to help with the kind of unstained enthusiasm that only children can bring. By 1 p.m. the volunteers were hungry, tired, and hot, with 25 filled orange trash bags and eight green recycling bags left in their wake. Despite their condition, the volunteers were left with a sense of accomplishment, remarking that the collection of bags on the side of the road was proof of their hard work.

It was during the trash pickup that one of the students noted the abundant amount of polystyrene or EPS (aka Styrofoam) recovered on the road and placed inside the orange bags. She asked why they were not putting the EPS in the green recycling bags to be reused. The question sparked an impromptu lesson about the reusability, composition, biodegradability, and environmental effects of EPS. Essentially, EPS is not recycled because it is composed of 95% air, is extremely difficult to decontaminate, and is not cost-effective to recycle.1 It is estimated that EPS will take a minimum of 500 years to break down. Meanwhile, EPS can be consumed by animals and consequently affect every organism in the food chain through bioaccumulation. After this discussion, many of the volunteers stated that they had not fully understood the harmful effects of EPS until that moment.

Since that hot Friday morning in May, the Biology Club and PTK have stepped up their effort to combat litter in their area of responsibility by making the trash pickup a quarterly event. The club organizers realized that it was the responsibility of CCTC, as an academic leader in the community, to educate the students and populace on the impact that people have on their environment. Club leaders stated that it is a collective obligation to make our city and the planet a better place to live for current and future generations. The Biology Club and PTK now use the campus Earth Day Awareness event as their platform to achieve this goal, while continually seeking new avenues for everyday environmental improvement and sustainability.

The trash pickup event, now called “Community Clean-Up Days,” allows members of the public an opportunity to participate in community cleanup. The new initiative has already generated tremendous interest from local schools and businesses, helping to raise environmental awareness overall. The change has been particularly evident to local residents, who have praised the efforts of the volunteers. In one statement, a homeowner said that “she could see the immediate effects of the trash pickup.” The months of exhaustive effort are finally bearing fruit, as residents are taking more responsibility for their piece of Sumter. Community Clean-Up Days now happen four times a year, and the numbers of orange and green bags are fewer each time, a testament to the change initiated by the first wave of volunteers. Nevertheless, the leaders of the combined clubs are not ready to claim victory, as it is understood that this endeavor is not a single battle on a single road, but a greater struggle toward a better future – a future that would be unattainable without the collective efforts of all who support, endorse, and volunteer in the ongoing movement for change. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Note

1.

Somerville, M. (2017). The real reason no one's recycling Styrofoam - and how one company is changing that. https://earth911.com/uncategorized/recycling-styrofoam/.