Home News Here’s how San Martin is trying to solve the roadside trash problem

Here’s how San Martin is trying to solve the roadside trash problem

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Armed with a garbage picker and a hi-viz vest, volunteer firefighter Tyler Kroen fills a bright blue trash bag as he walks along a country road when he suddenly stops and exclaims, “Rattlesnake!”

He peels the flattened husk of the poor creature off the pavement, to the disgusted groans and laughter of his trash-collecting companions.

The volunteer-led San Martin Trash Bash can add that snake to a list of odd and sometimes unsettling finds that includes hundred-pound tractor tires, porn DVDs and even dead goats.

While litter is an issue all over Silicon Valley, unincorporated San Martin does not have dedicated staff to deal with the problem. So instead, a group of volunteers has taken matters into their own hands, cleaning up 1,300 lbs. of trash in 2024 alone — and that number can stretch into multiple tons by the end of a year.

“We’re unincorporated, we don’t have a governing body that’s local, so we’re the citizenship putting in the time,” said resident Liz Paredes Bahnsen. “This is my home. This is my backyard, this is my front yard. Let’s keep it clean.”

The clean-up group began back in 2017 when residents from the San Martin Neighborhood Association were trying to figure out what to do about the trash around San Martin — a rural town tucked between Morgan Hill and Gilroy. While residents could call the county to haul away large objects like furniture or broken-down trailers, everyday litter and debris were left untouched. The town also has a small dump, which some residents say exacerbates the problem when winds blow garbage from the dump, or when individuals who don’t want to pay the fees to legally get rid of their junk decide to drop their load on a back road — which some residents refer to as a “dump and dash.”

“We were brainstorming (about) ‘if the county is not going to clean it up, what can we do?’” said Sharon Luna, who helped lead this year’s Trash Bash.

The association decided to take the problem into their own hands, gathering a few dozen volunteers twice a year to pick up the trash. To sweeten the deal, volunteers get free food, and this year were awarded prizes for the weirdest and largest pieces of trash.

The trash bash has delivered both in volume and weirdness of garbage. The small band of volunteers has gathered tons of trash at their cleanups, peaking at a whopping 7.7 tons in 2019, according to the organizers. In previous years, rubbish has featured a rural flare — including dead goats, dead chickens and tractor tires — as well as satellite dishes, baby booties, a car roof and countless bottles of cheap vodka and Fireball. This year, Kroen’s rattlesnake won for the weirdest find.

However strange the trash might be, San Martin’s garbage problem is far from unique. In 2020, Caltrans reported spending over $100 million cleaning up some 1.3 million bags of trash along state highways. According to Gabe Molina, Superintendent of Roads and Airports for the southern section of the county, trash and illegal dumping are an issue all over Santa Clara County. However, Roads and Airports, which technically has purview over the trash, often lacks the resources to address the garbage problem when they also have to deal with fixing potholes and paving roads while their staff is spread thin.

“It’s really hard for us to send a crew out to go pick up papers when we have bigger scale work to do,” he said. His department helps provide the volunteers with supplies like buckets, garbage bags and safety cones. “I think the unique part about it is for the residents to care enough to volunteer and help clean up.”

This year, a group ranging from a grade-schooler to grandparents gathered along with a contingent from the local volunteer fire brigade to give back to the community by cleaning trash from San Martin’s roadsides and local Llagas Creek.



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