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Volunteer community cleanup and beautification projects can help diffuse the costs associated with using public works resources to clean up. Photo: Keep America Beautiful

Litter isn't pretty—but it is pretty expensive. Efforts to wipe the cans, bottles, candy wrappers, and other detritus from our roadsides cost Americans about $115 million each year.

For more than 50 years, Keep America Beautiful has been working to combat the litter problem, largely through public-service campaigns and volunteer programs. One of their biggest pushes for pickups comes during the Great American Cleanup, scheduled this year from March 1 to May 31. The national effort encourages individuals and community organizations to pitch in and clean up their local roadsides, parks, beaches, and other locales.

Public works departments around the country are among the organized groups that participate in the Great American Cleanup. Putting on such events costs a pittance, but it slashes the costs associated with using department staff to clean up. In addition to saving dollars, using volunteers to remove litter eliminates health risks associated with the problem (West Nile-carrying mosquitoes breeding in discarded tires, for instance), and it can increase civic pride.

“People from every walk of life are taking pride in their communities,” says Cynthia Ruiz, president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. “It is a reflection of themselves—symbolic of their joy for life, and for their quality of life.”

Los Angeles kicked off its Great American Cleanup at City Hall on Saturday, March 3. The city's 2007 campaign focuses on education, individual responsibility, public-private partnerships, and increasing volunteerism. In addition, Los Angeles offers Community Beautification Grants to community-based organizations looking to spruce up their neighborhoods. The 2006–2007 program awarded 91 grants of as much as $10,000 each for projects ranging from planting trees to restoring nature trails.

In the past, the nationwide cleanup events have met with wild success. Participants in 2006 projects collected more than 228 million pounds of debris, including more than 2.5 million scrap tires, 37 million plastic bottles, and 38.5 million pounds of aluminum and steel; much of the collected material went into recycling bins. Last year's event kicked off in Biloxi, Miss., as part of the Hurricane Katrina Restoration Project; volunteers cleaned debris and planted a variety of trees, flowers, and grasses to help restore the city to its pre-hurricane glory.

For more information on the Great American Cleanup and how to increase community involvement in your municipality, visit www.kab.org.