EAST MARLBOROUGH — On New Year’s Day, when many people spent time with family and friends or watched some football, a Kennett-area woman worked seven hours cleaning trash from local roads.
"We live in a nice area and I just don't like looking at mess," said Kelly McDowell, 46, who has collected nearly 6,000 bags of trash from local roads in the past six years. "I think it's embarrassing to live in such a nice community with trash all over the roads."
McDowell moved to the area six years ago from Delaware. She lives in a house on the grounds of Longwood Gardens, where her husband is employed. Passionate about the environment, she immediately got involved with Great American Cleanup of PA, an organization that has more than 92,000 volunteers who cleaned more than 78,000 miles of roads, shorelines and trails in Pennsylvania last year.
McDowell said too many people litter, especially motorists, and anti-littering signs don't work. In Pennsylvania, the general fine for littering is $300, or $600 if it takes place in an agricultural area. Those caught littering a second time can be ordered to pick up and remove litter for not less than 16 hours and not more than 32 hours. Upon third and subsequent convictions, those who litter may be sentenced to pick up and remove litter for not less than 40 hours and not more than 80 hours.
But those who litter are rarely caught, and often let go with a warning if they are.
"I am not relying on government officials to change things, because I work for the government and know if you want to make something that’s simple become complicated, get the government involved," she said.
McDowell, who collected 70 bags of trash last week, is working to clean up Route 52 between Route 1 and the Delaware state line. She also organizes a cleanup on the Route 1 bypass, from the Walmart to Jennersville, a 10-mile stretch of road. She also picks up litter on Route 1 from Longwood to Route 202. And she often works alone, and she has a full-time job.
She said she mostly works behind the guardrail for safety reasons. She said the wind mostly blows trash into the brush.
"There is trash everywhere you look," she said. "Where we live is beautiful and I love the rolling hills. We need to keep our community clean."
McDowell said she usually finds discarded beer cans, but also finds used condoms and election signs. One time she said she found $130 in mostly bills. She also has founded a discarded PlayStation game console.
But the trash that really strikes a nerve with McDowell is single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills, while plastic bottles take 450 years.
"I collect tons and tons of plastic bags," McDowell said. "They get in the creeks and rivers and it harms wildlife."
In Delaware, lawmakers passed House Bill 130 that prohibits retailers from providing single-use plastic bags to consumers. But in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation preventing counties and municipalities from taxing or banning plastic bags. However, Philadelphia City Council last month passed a bill that bans stores from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. The measure takes effect July 2.
Because she "adopted" Route 52 from Longwood to the Delaware state line, the Great American Cleanup of PA provides her with 1,200 bags per year free of charge.
And she fills them all.
"I do this about 30 days a year," McDowell said. "It's a month of my life. And what I like about Chester County is that they are responsive about coming out to get the trash bags on the side of the road."
The Great American Cleanup of PA runs from March 1 to May 31, and McDowell said she would like help. Those who wish to volunteer can contact her through Facebook, sending a private message to Great American Cleanup of PA - Chester County.
"I'm not giving up," she said. "It's nice to drive around and see a clean community."