As part of Washington State Department of Transportation’s Adopt-a-Highway program, thousands of people statewide form groups to clean up 2-mile stretches of highway.

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The next time Junior complains about taking out the trash, tell him there are people who actually volunteer to do it and take pride in the number of bags they collect.

As part of Washington State Department of Transportation’s Adopt-a-Highway program, thousands of people statewide form groups to clean up 2-mile stretches of highway.

You’ve probably seen them in their orange vests, picking up garbage along roadways.

“I got into it largely because I live on the highway here, and I just kept seeing more and more litter accumulate and nobody was picking it up,” says Petrina Vecchio, a volunteer coordinator for Mount Rainier Volunteers.

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Twice a year, Vecchio’s group cleans up the trash along a section of Highway 706 between Elbe and the Longmire gate to Mount Rainier National Park.

Vecchio thinks people are more sensitive to trash along this scenic stretch of highway than other byways because it’s near a national park.

“That was one of the motivations for doing it,” she says. “We wanted the gateway to our home and Mount Rainier to look nice. We want to welcome visitors here.”

This year, Adopt-a-Highway is celebrating its 25th anniversary, but with little fanfare. Besides keeping the highways clean, the program saves taxpayer money and reminds motorists not to litter.

Anna Zaharris, the Adopt-a-Highway manager for the past two years, says there are more than 1,000 groups — car and motorcycle clubs, community groups, fraternal organizations, schools and businesses — picking up trash along a third of the state’s 7,000 miles of highway.

Businesses can sponsor cleanups, using volunteers or contractors, to pick up litter six times a year.

“One of the many misconceptions about the program is that it’s an advertising program, and it’s not,” Zaharris says. “The signs that go up are to recognize the people, the families, the Kiwanis clubs, the businesses, etc., that are keeping the highways clean. When you have a business and your section of highway is clean, it’s a bonus when somebody drives by.”

Adopt-a-Highway volunteers are motivated by many different reasons.

“There are groups that do it in memory of someone lost in an accident,” Zaharris says. “There are families that clean up in front of their farms because they want the roadside to look nice when people are driving by.

“There are even high schools where, in order to graduate, [students] have to have a certain number of community-service hours.”

The Tacoma Chapter of ABATE of Washington, a nonprofit group that promotes fair motorcycle legislation, has been part of the Adopt-a-Highway program for two decades. The group does two cleanups a year, in April and October, along Highway 7 (also known as the Mountain Highway) south of the Roy “Y.”

“I think it’s about giving back, as well as being with your friends and family, your biker family, and enjoying the fact that you’re doing something for the community,” says Steve Carlsberg, Tacoma Chapter coordinator.

Carlsberg says the group collects 60 to 80 bags of trash per cleanup. Volunteers find pop cans, candy wrappers, credit cards, prophylactics, syringes, toilet paper rolls, clothing and sometimes luggage. (Volunteers are advised not to pick up potentially dangerous items or dead animals.)

“Our badge of honor is how many bags did we get,” Carlsberg says. “That’s how we measure success.”