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Volunteers find the most amazing things cleaning trash on highway shoulders

Why would anyone stand on the shoulder of a freeway with cars and trucks whizzing by at 65 mph, or faster, to pick up plastic bags, cigarette butts, beer bottles and trash? For Loui Tucker, it’s about making a difference. For Carlo Pedron, it’s the challenge of making it happen every month.

For John Cribbs, it’s the feeling of accomplishment. And for Jim Schallau, it’s knowing that something has to be done and a willingness to do it. They’re all part of the Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway Program, which started in 1989 as a government-public partnership. Participants sometimes work on vegetation control and plantings, but most volunteers pick up litter. In San Jose, of the 247 shoulder miles considered adoptable, 165 miles are taken care of by 50 different groups. Tucker and her spouse, Sabine Zappe, joined the program in 2004 and now clean northbound Highway 280 from Meridian to Saratoga Avenue, the Southwest Expressway/Meridian/280 interchange and the north side of the 280/17/880 interchange. “In essence I wanted to make a difference,” says Tucker, who lives in the Rose Garden area.

I was one of those people who got the Kennedy message ‘Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.’ “I can give one Saturday a month and keep a stretch of highway clean. It’s my little bit toward making the world a better place.” Schallau joined Tucker and Sabine after reading about their adopting a portion of highways in a 2004 Rose Garden Resident newspaper article. “There is an area where 280 and 880 join and at that time it was so bad. I drove by there a lot and it was hard to look at it,” Schallau says. “I knew something had to be done, and when I read that Loui was organizing a team for that area, I had to join.” Cribbs joined the Tucker and Zappe team two years ago when he and his wife volunteered the first time. Cribbs’ wife did not return, but he did. “My wife always questions how I can enjoy it,” says the Cambrian area resident. “It isn’t picking up the trash so much that I enjoy, it’s the feeling of accomplishment when I’m commuting by and seeing it look nice and knowing I helped.” Pedron started picking up trash with his San Jose Elks Lodge 522 on the edge of Willow Glen in 2000. Since 2001 he has served as the managing coordinator of their cleanups along southbound Highway 87 from Capital Expressway to Santa Teresa and along southbound Highway 85 from Los Gatos Boulevard to Camden Avenue. “It’s kind of my hobby now,” Pedron says.

He’s developed a database of the volunteers and says, “I’ve got it functioning so a certain time each month I do a certain thing.” Tucker says before she joined the Adopt-A-Highway program, she had an idea “it would be fun” and that has turned out to be true for her. To keep her fellow volunteers, who have ranged in number from six to 25, enthusiastic and entertained, Tucker has catalogued many of their finds and kept track of how much they’ve collected. The September 2010 volunteers “picked up our 2,000th bag of trash,” she says. “It’s fascinating what people throw away or just gets loose. It makes you shake your head and wonder how in the heck did this get on the freeway,” Tucker says. “It’s 80 to 90 percent plastic, paper and fast food detritus.” The other 10 to 20 percent makes for entertaining reading on her website,, under the Trash-a-thon heading. The “Extraordinary Stuff” includes a diorama in a shoebox of dinosaurs in a tropical setting that she guesses was a child’s school project; hundreds of memo pads for the Maple Tree Inn in Sunnyvale; a large, black plastic Craftsman toolbox with power tools inside; an undamaged, modern toilet left with a pair of size 14 black rubber boots sitting inside it; and a set of maracas. Occasionally, Tucker and her volunteers find something like the two chest X-rays from O’Connor Hospital with the patient’s name on them or the set of three credit cards. Tucker returned the X-rays to the hospital and tracked down the credit card owner and returned those as well. An old “Busch Bavarian Beer” can fascinated Tucker, so through research she was able to figure out it was at least 25 years old. Clothing is plentiful along the roadside and if it looks usable, Tucker and Zappe take it home, wash it and donate it to local charities. Then there is the money. Tucker says she and others have found $100, $50, $20 and $5 bills.

“Whoever finds it, it’s theirs,” she says, although she uses any money she finds to help defray the cost of pizza and soft drinks she treats her volunteers to at the end of each Trash-a-thon. Schallau says he hasn’t had much luck with money. “I’ve found a few coins and I did find one $20 bill, but it turned out to be counterfeit,” he says. Cribbs says when he came across four wallets within yards of each other, he thought he might have hit the jackpot. However, he says, “They’d been picked clean. We’re assuming somebody picked pockets and was getting rid of the evidence.” What amazes Cribbs is the number of car pieces he’s found. “There are bumpers, complete sides of cars and we found a trunk lid once,” he says. “It’s difficult to know if they fall off a truck on the way to the dump or people just throw them alongside the highway. “I think we might be able to assemble our own vehicle with the parts. We haven’t found an engine block yet, but all the other components seem to be out there.” Tucker separates recyclables from the bags of trash, which are left alongside the freeway for collection by Caltrans. She usually places the recyclables next to her garbage can on collection day and “one of the neighborhood recyclers comes by and picks up the bags.” However, when no one came by to pick them up the last time, she took them to a recycling center and collected $1.08 for 14 pounds of glass bottles, $3.41 for 31 pounds of plastic and $16.35 for 7 ½ pounds of aluminum cans. It totaled $20.86, which went into the pizza fund. Pedron is not as focused on recording what is collected and says the 40 regular Elks volunteers do not separate out recyclables. “Caltrans has asked us to recycle, but we’re out there risking our lives picking up trash. I’m not going to bother splitting up aluminum cans and plastic bottles,” he says. “It’s too hard and particularly on Highway 85 it’s like being in a wind tunnel with cars coming by at 70 and 80 miles an hour.” Pedron says fellow volunteers have found money, but nothing higher than a $20 bill. “We found a wad of quarters at Camden one time. I can only think somebody had a roll of quarters and they broke open all over the place,” he says. While Pedron doesn’t pay attention to what is collected, fellow Elk Ken Fry lists what he finds each month. In July he reported, “24 water bottles, 1 gallon jug, 4 beer cans, 6 energy can drinks, 2 bags of foam, 1 box condoms and 1 book.” Pedron doesn’t dispute that there’s a lot of trash on the highways, but he believes little of it is thrown out deliberately. “I maintain that 80 percent of the trash we pick up is blown out and 20 percent is deliberately thrown out, which is bad enough,” he says.

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