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Friday, March 30, 2012

Charging volunteers to volunteer

R.I. Charges Volunteers to Pick Up After Litterbugs

Rose Marques, ecoRI.org

Getting people to “do the right thing” often is a matter of dollars rather than sense. It’s especially true with the environment. Yes, a small percentage of people will do the right thing and pay more for the privilege of doing so, such as buying locally grown food or buying a hybrid car that costs more than a gas-guzzler.
But many people will be more likely to discover their environmental conscience if there is a financial incentive to do so — or, at least, if it doesn’t cost them.


Rhode Island’s Adopt-A-Highway program seems to be a good example. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) allows volunteer groups to clean a 2-mile section of a secondary road, but it will cost them a few hundred dollars. The program supplements the state’s labor force by inviting these environmentally conscious volunteers to pick up after their less conscientious civic brethren — a job that otherwise falls squarely on the state.

Adopting-A-Highway in Rhode Island 
costs at least $300, plus volunteers 
have to collect trash four times 
a year along their stretch of road.
In Rhode Island, 105 groups have taken up the challenge — a seemingly small number compared to the groups that most certainly are still out there uninvolved. Nonprofits pay nothing to pick up after other people, but for-profit entities pay a one-time total charge of almost $300 for a set of two small signs ($500 for big), including the post, the state’s labor to make and install the signs, and the state’s collection and disposal of bagged trash.
The total cost of the sign could be a barrier to entry for some companies otherwise willing to help clean up the Ocean State. And if not a financial barrier, at least a deterring annoyance.
Why shouldn’t the state provide the signs and posts completely gratis? Free signs, a post and installation could be Rhode Island’s way of thanking volunteers. It shouldn’t cost volunteers to donate their time and energy to help the state and, more importantly, the environment.
With volunteers providing the labor, the biggest expense is already covered. Yes, the state contributes some labor, too, plus supplies, but is that enough to justify the cost? With a group’s first cleanup, the state would easily recoup its expenditure through saved labor costs.
But volunteer groups don’t clean just once. They are asked to collect trash four times a year and to provide the state a “report card” summarizing activity — much like providing your boss a project status, except you pay him for the privilege of doing the work.
Chuck Ricci, the DOT’s Adopt-A-Highway coordinator, noted that this fee structure was in place long before he arrived. That might sound like the “That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It” Syndrome, but in this case, Ricci raises a good point.
The system may date back to when times weren’t so lean, when companies had extra money to spare and when they had plenty of employees. But that’s not necessarily the case today.
Perhaps the time has come for state lawmakers to review and update this worthwhile program. That’s exactly what Connecticut is doing. The Adopt-A-Highway program in the Nutmeg State is being re-evaluated to determine whether its fee structure makes sense. Unfortunately, Connecticut is looking to Rhode Island.
According to Kevin Kursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Rhode Island’s guidelines are among those being reviewed as a model. A model of what? Certainly not one of encouraging environmental stewardship.
Connecticut currently charges each volunteer group a nominal, one-time administrative fee of $10 to $25 to cover processing costs. Signs, posts and installation are free.
Ricci said that without the Rhode Island fees in place, many companies might participate in the program simply to promote their businesses, and therefore visual pollution could become a concern.
Isn’t that the idea, to have as many roads as possible adopted and cleaned? To have as many people as possible caring for and beautifying our Rhode Island landscapes, regardless of underlying motives?
Kursick concurred that visual pollution can certainly become problematic. However, Connecticut hasn’t seen a rush on its Adopt-A-Highway program or a proliferation of signs regardless of its low costs, he said.
In fact, Rhode Island’s counterintuitive guidelines are anything but unique. Massachusetts, for example, takes the program to a new level, requiring volunteers to clean their 2-mile stretch of road at least once a month. How do you “require” volunteers to do anything?
Better yet, Massachusetts sends volunteers to certain vendors to have the signs made and paid for on their own. This, the state calls a “public service” program. Yes, volunteers are serving the public, but are the states serving the public enough in such instances?
The public service concept, Kursick said, is also beneficial on a psychological level to deter littering. When people litter on an adopted road, the signs remind them that they are littering an area cleaned and cared for by local Boy Scouts or war veterans, he said. In other words, it feels personal and hopefully triggers a little guilt. Perhaps that’s another good reason to have more signs and adopters out there.
In a likely effort to incur as few costs as possible, states such as Rhode Island may really be short-changing themselves, doing themselves a financial disservice, failing to supplement their workforce, indirectly contributing to the state’s litter problem and discouraging citizens from taking the high road on the environment’s behalf.
I, for one, would rather see small signs along the road than piles of trash. And, if for-profit adopters earn exposure for their businesses in the process, that’s one small way Rhode Island can support and help grow its local economy.
Rose Marques is an ecoRI News contributor, a landscape designer and an environmentalist who believes that if irresponsible fools refuse to pick up after themselves, the rest of us need to find ways to do it — for the land’s sake.

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