As cars sped by on Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande, Fred and Diane Brebes’ eyes were fixed on the ground, searching for pieces of trash among the ice plant.
“It looks like maybe there was a birthday party,” Diane Brebes commented as she used a pair of litter pickers to grab a deflated balloon and stuff it into a large, white trash bag. “Some of it makes you wonder what was going on.”
The Brebes filled up several trash bags last Saturday morning with various bits of litter: plastic cup lids, pieces of Styrofoam, water bottles, crushed cans, a mostly empty bottle of beer.
There were other, more unusual items, too — a pair of brown pants, a binder with a clipboard, and a piece of wood with what looked like a small sculpture of a white tree attached.
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“I’ve never seen anything this weird,” Diane Brebes said of the sculpture. “We find a crumbled dollar once in a while. But it’s mostly just fast-food stuff.”
Since 1992, the Arroyo Grande couple has taken care of a roughly two-mile stretch of southbound Highway 101, from the Oak Park Boulevard exit to the Fair Oaks Avenue offramp. Their Adopt-A-Highway sign is positioned near the Oak Park Boulevard offramp.
Fred Brebes Sr., a former Caltrans superintendent in Santa Maria, was in charge of orienting the first group of volunteers after the state agency started the Adopt-A-Highway program in District 5, which includes San Luis Obispo County. He retired from Caltrans in 2003.
After a few years, he and his wife, a court reporter, decided to apply for a permit for their own stretch of highway. They occasionally also help keep a portion of Highway 1 from Pier Avenue in Oceano to Pismo Beach clean with the Kiwanis Club of Arroyo Grande Valley.
Fred Brebes estimates the couple fills three to four bags on their monthly visits to the side of Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande. Multiply that by 23 years and you get, well, about 276 cubic yards of trash.
“There’s been a big reduction in plastic bags since the bag ban,” Fred Brebes said, referring to San Luis Obispo County’s prohibition on plastic bags. “There’s a big difference — you can see it. It’s helped us.”
In San Luis Obispo County, 83 groups participate in the Adopt-A-Highway program, covering 679.7 “shoulder” miles, Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway coordinator Keli Kolaczyk said. Of those, 82 of the adoptions are for litter removal, one is for tree planting.
When asked about availability, Kolaczyk said that it’s difficult to adopt on Highway 101 through the county, but there are openings on Highway 1 in South County. Sites on Highway 46 East are also available as construction is coming to an end in certain areas, she said.
In the county, there are 18 sites available with a waiting list, and 19 available without a waiting list.
For the Brebeses, the hour or so they spend cleaning the highway each month is rewarding. Wearing bright yellow vests and white hard hats with the Caltrans logo, the Brebes usually split up and leapfrog each other, speeding up the process.
“It feels good that we can do this,” Fred Brebes said.
It’s also nice to be out in the fresh air and be active, Diane Brebes said. “We don’t play golf.”