Just off Tonnelle Avenue under the Paterson Plank Road overpass, a massive pile of trash and other debris accumulated on the shoulder of an enclosed roadway at the edge of the rail line on North Bergen’s west side.
The road, which was conveniently out of sight, became especially prone to litterers who ditched furniture, TVs, car parts, and more standard-issue trash near the road or over the collapsing fences on either side.
That eyesore is no more, thanks to volunteers from North Bergen High School’s environmental club.
On April 8, high school students from all grades turned out with a crew of more than 20 volunteers for their annual volunteer cleanup, aptly timed for North Bergen’s first sponsored celebration of Local Government Week.
Local Government Week is a yearly event sponsored by municipalities from April 7-13 that raises awareness of local government’s role in the everyday lives of the residents it serves.
Picking the perfect dumpsite
According to Tom Stampe, a township recycling coordinator who helped lead the club’s project, volunteer cleanups such as these are selected strategically. It’s often unclear what jurisdiction dumpsites fall under, whether state, county, or local. The township’s departments pick derelict areas which have fallen by the wayside due to red-tape issues. The environmental club then steps up to the plate on a volunteer basis.
Underneath the overpass was one of those areas. Despite abundant signs warning of hefty illegal dumping fines, the side of the road was piled with trash. After a few hours of bagging, digging, raking, and heavy lifting, students loaded their heavy haul of debris onto a garbage truck provided by North Bergen’s Department of Public Works. Recyclables were kept separate, and the road looked pristine again.
Stampe was awed at the sight of students hauling a wrecked 60-inch TV screen, especially since the township’s recycling program retrieves unwanted screens from residents’ doorsteps, free of charge.
A yearly routine
Beautification projects have become a longstanding tradition for North Bergen’s student volunteers, who’ve got a track record, which includes cleanups similar to that on April 8. They include mass recyclable collections and painting over graffiti. They’re usually held around Earth Day.
About five or six years ago, word of the environmental club’s efforts reached North Bergen’s Department of Public Works and Municipal Utilities Authority. Those workers have been pitching in on projects. The projects are becoming more coordinated as more township employees volunteer to help.
They close off roads for cleanups and provide students with gloves, tools, bags, and, when necessary, a garbage truck. Township employees who clean things up for a living give students safety tips. The Department of Recreation provided busing for the group this year.
The club currently hosts weekly meetings at the high school to organize events for the student body. This year, the meetings are run by student co-presidents Kristen Ontal and Zainab Mahmoud.
The club also has co-moderators, Dana Hojnowski and Jennifer Checchio. Hojnowski teaches biology and environmental science, and Checchio teaches environmental science at both the regular and AP level.
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