Mike Richter walked slowly but methodically along the jagged Lake Hughes Road sidewalk, following the incongruous panels of the cement path as it crossed below an Interstate 5 overpass.
A piece of litter caught by the dried branches of a shrub danced quietly in the Castaic wind – attracting Richter’s attention from the corner of his eye and prompting an immediate response.
He reached down, removed the garbage from the plant, and placed it into a large trash bag.
His eyes returned to the road ahead, observing the hundreds of scraps of litter that still dotted the hillside – a collection of trash now once piece fewer.
One Piece at a Time
“It started late last year,” recalled Richter.
While out hiking in Elsmere Canyon, he became dismayed at the volume of trash discarded carelessly by travelers on Highway 14 and at the effect that this garbage had on the beauty of Santa Clarita’s chaparral hillsides.
He was struck with an epiphany.
“I got the nerve to get up and start removing litter,” said Richter.
Richter took his idea to local authorities who, although encouraged by his zeal, did not have the resources at their disposal to make a significant impact in his efforts.
“(Castaic Area Town Council) listened but they did nothing,” he said. “So I realized I could get more done by just going out myself.”
Richter mobilized quickly by starting One Piece at a Time, a volunteer organization that conducts regular trash pickups and beautification projects in Castaic.
“Castaic is a pit stop for truckers, and now that I’m realizing it, there’s a terrible amount of (litter) here,” he said.
One Piece at a Time began as merely Richter and his wife, both of whom would routinely collect litter while out for walks around their Castaic home.
However this seemingly simple act of picking up trash and placing it into a garbage bag, Richter said, is far more nerve-wracking than it appears.
“I really had to work up the courage,” he remembered. “Once I (filled up) the first bag, I got over the psychological thing of, ‘Hey, who’s that weirdo over there picking up trash.’”
After summoning the courage to beautify his community, Richter began to reach out. First to Caltrans, later to the community.
He created a Facebook group that quickly gathered likes, and soon other members of the Castaic community began to commit themselves to the project.
“Strangers showed up who had the same mindset and were willing to do something about it,” Richter recalled.
The group’s most recent pickup, which targeted the Lake Hughes Road and Interstate 5 intersection, attracted 10 community members — five of whom Richter had never previously met.
Those who attended the clean up assisted to the best of their ability — some filling bags with trash, others ensuring coffee and doughnuts were in ample supply.
Richter even found a way to involve local businesses.
“They’re pretty supportive and will let us use their dumpsters to get rid of the trash,” he said.
“But,” he laughed, “we try to disperse (the garage) from place to place.”
Through his tenacity and foresight, Richter and his organization were able to make a significant impact on the state of the intersection — an impact he believes many residents will feel.
“We removed most of the litter at Lake Hughes Road and I-5,” wrote Richter on Facebook. “I consider this a wonderful gift to me and our home.”
The New Year
“You know,” Richter said, “if people see litter, they’re twice as likely to litter themselves.”
Richter alluded to the “broken windows theory” — a sociological phenomenon that suggests small acts, such as fixing broken windows, picking up litter and painting over graffiti, set norms that maintain neighborhood cohesion and reduce crime.
If drivers along the 5 freeway come through a litter-free Castaic, they will be less inclined to toss their garbage out the window, he said.
“We may make people aware,” he said. “My goals are to continue the course and try to inspire others not to litter.
“Right now, I’m not fixing the problem,” he said. “I’m just cleaning it up.”
More information about One Piece at a Time, including information about upcoming clean-ups, can be found on the group’s Facebook page.