Litter Patrol
The 2020 Youth Litter Patrol crew picked up thousands of pounds of trash, recyclables and hundreds of needles this season. Photo courtesy David Drumhiller.

If your rocket-propelled grenade launcher never arrived from FedEx, check with Alaska State Troopers. This summer’s Youth Litter patrol found it dumped off the side of a Fairbanks road.

“We did not know what it was when we found it,” said David Drumhiller, who spearheads the teams of teens who pick up litter every summer.

The grenade launcher was packed inside an addressed box off South Cushman Street near Northland Wood Products.

“It looked like it set in the bushes for awhile, but not enough to degrade the box,” Drumhiller said.

When they opened the box, they discovered it was filled with a giant nest of ants. Once they removed the item, they couldn’t figure out what it was, but it looked kind of “weaponish,” Drumhiller said.

So he followed protocol and called Alaska State Troopers.

One of the teens spotted a paper inside the box that identified the item as an “RPG.” They just couldn’t believe it was real.

Nevertheless, they delivered it to troopers. That’s when they discovered it was indeed the real thing, apparently stolen off someone’s front porch, where FedEx had delivered it. Troopers took possession of it and planned to track down the owner.

Teens also found a 9 mm gun, taken apart, with pieces scattered on the ground. Troopers went to the location in person to pick up that item.

In his 35 years of running this program, finding a grenade launcher was a first for Drumhiller, kind of a fun find. But more and more, these teens find dangerous items along the roadways. Encountering used needles is an everyday occurrence.

“Needles were a problem this year,” Drumhiller said. “What is different this year is where they are putting them — in soda bottles, in cigarette packs, in aluminum cans.”

Teens are not allowed to touch the needles. Instead, they report them to a supervisor, who handles the needles and places them in a safe container for disposal at the hospital. This year, they filled many of those containers. Drumhiller estimated the teams picked up 300 to 500 needles.

“We can’t in good conscience leave it there for children or animals to get into,” he said and described the difficulty of disposing of needles found in packages. The hospital will only accept needles in the special containers. Luckily, he said, Fairbanks City Police assisted with disposal of needles found in a soda bottle.

“Needles caused us a little consternation this year,” he said.

One of those needles poked through the glove of a supervisor and nicked her finger.

“It was hidden in a soda pop can,” he said. “She’s OK, but now we have to check her every three months to make sure she didn’t catch anything.

“Anybody could have picked up that can. It could have been a kid who picked it up.”

The coronavirus made this a challenging year. Drumhiller hired fewer teens, so each had an open window in the litter patrol vehicle, and they wore masks in the truck and when they couldn’t social distance from each other.

This is a paying job for the teens, funded through Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. Community businesses contribute to the program, which usually keeps two 10-person teams of 14- and 15-year-olds busy during the months of June and July.

Usually, at the end of the season, Drumhiller can name the messiest roadway. But this summer, they all needed cleanup.

“The messiest ones are the busiest ones,” he said. “The Johansen, the Richardson, the Parks.”

Every year, the litter patrol picks up electronics and other items that they try to recycle.

“We find a lot of computers, cell phones, televisions, DVD players that are damaged or shot up,” Drumhiller said.

Spare tires sometimes can be recycled. One found this year will end up being the spare for the litter patrol truck.

In 2020, the teams recycled 1,000 pounds of aluminum, 10 pounds of copper, and 100 pounds of insulated copper wire. At a gravel pit at Mile 9 Richardson Highway, they picked up a truckload of plastic coatings from different size wire. It all went to the landfill.

“That’s definitely a dumping ground,” he said.

The teens are hard workers, he noted. He particularly commended four girls who loaded 1,200 pounds of wet cardboard from Farmers Loop Road.

“They loaded it in an hour,” he said.

Those same girls loaded two king-size mattresses found at a pullout along the Parks Highway.

“Those weighed 220 pounds total,” he said.

A full days work can net a mere 260 pounds of trash, picking up dry, blown litter. Some days, a half day of loading bigger items like old furniture and shredded tires can contribute to a 720-pound load.

Sponsors for the 2020 Youth Litter Patrol include Alaskans For Litter Prevention and Recycling (ALPAR), Fairbanks North Star Borough landfill, City of Fairbanks Bed Tax, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Chevrolet Buick GMC of Fairbanks, Sourdough Fuel, Ron’s Towing, Auto Trim Design, and ASRC Energy Services.

Youth Litter Patrol members included Via Skipps, Levi Skipps, Isaac Gripper, Taylor Kamrath, Quintin Taylor, Andrew Allers, Isaac Waters, Eugene Wiltz, Curtis Pope (assistant supervisor), Rebecca Putnam, Travin Greenwood, Jillian Proell, Ky-Mani South, Randi McKinney, Olivia Manley, Samantha Manley and Luke Rydell.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.