Every Tuesday, a group that calls itself the Trash Tramps takes to the streets of Montpelier to pick up litter. They start their quest with a rallying cry, borrowed from Unitarian Minister Edward Everett Hale.
They huddle in, raising salad tongs and other implements, and recite in unison, "I am one. I am only one but still I am one. I can’t do everything but still I can do something. And because I can’t do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do."
After a group cheer they add, "Our motto is: This work is beneath us."
Every Tuesday at 2 p.m. the Trash tramps meet at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, where they don work gloves and custom neon safety vests, and equip themselves with kitchen tongs, shopping bags and cigarette butt collection buckets fashioned out of quart yogurt containers.
From there, they head off to the streets and alleyways of downtown Montpelier, red wagon in tow. They spend the next hour picking up litter, from fast food containers – sometimes with food still inside – to beer cans to literally thousands of cigarette butts.
That's just some of what Anthony Otis and Rebecca Sheppard found as I followed them during last Tuesday's outing. But you won't hear those names used when they're out on a Trash Tramps mission. Instead, the go by their Trash Tramp aliases :"Antonio the Bagman" and "Nada (Bag Lady ... Yet)."
There have been over 30 participants since the Trash Tramps first hit the streets last September. And they each have a Trash Tramp name, according to organizers Anne Ferguson and Nancy Schulz – also known as "Ben Dover" and "Sister Sludge."
Ferguson says they’ve only missed one week in the past nine months.
"And that was because the Senior Center was closed and we couldn’t get to all of our supplies," she explains. "But aside from that we’ve done it every week."
Ten Trash Tramps turned out last Tuesday, including Sue Roop, or "Sakholder Sue," who doesn’t let her 8-pound portable oxygen concentrator get in the way of pulling the Trash Tramp wagon through downtown. Even though Vermont’s Green Up Day was only a month ago, Roop says there’s still work to do.
"The annual event of Green Up Day helps this process immensely," she says. "But still, it’s starting to accumulate again. So we mush on."
Organizer Anne Ferguson says the Trash Tramps have a system down, which makes their job easier. Trash and recyclables are sorted into bags and buckets. And full bags go in the wagon.
"We’ve got the plastic-lined cloth bag. So under the plastic bag are more plastic bags so we can replenish that one," Ferguson explains. "We slip the handles of the cloth bag through the handles of the plastic bag and that holds it open, so you only need one hand to hold the cloth bag and the butt cans. And the butt cans are yogurt containers that I put little handles on, so we could separate out the butts."
They collect cigarette butts separately because they can be recycled. Trash Tramps organizer Nancy Schulz says they bring the butts to the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District office, and they eventually make their way to a New Jersey recycling company called Terracycle.
"They compost the tobacco," she says, "and they spin everything out so they get just the filter. They melt down the filters and they make things like park benches and railroad ties and decking for people’s porches and the like."
The fact that something useful can be made out of littered cigarette butts inspires Anne Ferguson. "And being able to send them off and have them be reused is just awesome," she adds.
Bending down to pick up some more butts with her kitchen tongs, Ferguson says anyone can do what the Trash Tramps do to improve their own community.
"It’s just not a big thing, you know?" says Ferguson. "But it brings you joy and the thing is its immediate reward. You pick up something and it immediately changes the world. And it may not be the most earth-shattering world change, but it’s something that everyone can do on a small basis to make a big change in the world."
And, Ferguson says, even though the Trash Tramps are based out of the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, there is no minimum age requirement to join them.