Photo: Pictured above, Lesa Osborn smiles for the camera after discussing her efforts to prevent litter in the community.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
While people often disregard a wrapper tangled in bushes or ignore an empty soda can on the roadside, one local woman refuses to look away.
In an effort to eliminate the litter plaguing Etowah County, Lesa Osborn strives to clean up her community.
As the Gadsden Commercial Development Authority Board’s Director, Osborn serves as a liaison between the development community and Gadsden. However, when Osborn goes home, she does not stop working for the Gadsden community. Just as in her office today, she promotes development in Gadsden, she protects that development by cleaning up the litter that pollutes the community.
Wherever Osborn goes, she takes her essentials with her: gloves, boots, a trash-picker claw and 30-gallon trash bags. During her expeditions, Osborn collects the trash that others carelessly toss aside and, in some areas, ends up with four or five 30-gallon bags full of discarded waste. She ties the bags up neatly and ensures that the trash is properly disposed. But for Osborn, fighting the war against litter is a lifelong endeavor.
Osborn’s efforts to protect the environment and nurture her neighborhood are not recent developments—conservation is a mantra she has upheld for decades. While she served as a city of Attalla councilwoman and the special projects coordinator of the Attalla Beautification Board, Osborn conducted cleanup days where 100 people would participate. After noticing piles of tires building up in Attalla, Osborn worked to change state legislation for tire dumps, resulting in a fund that cleaned up excess tires. The Attalla tire dump clean-up was the first one in Alabama; now the money goes towards resolving illegal tire dumps all over the state.
In a response to A.K. Gage’s 1990 article “Earth Day propaganda,” Osborn fostered preservation through recycling paper, aluminum, glass and motor oil and encouraging her children to clean up their neighborhood once a month. She believed then and she believes now that conserving resources for future generations is vital, and each individual can participate in protecting the planet he or she calls home.
“My children will be raised to respect this Earth, not to abuse it,” wrote Osborn in 1990. “Children, as well as adults, can be taught to conserve energy.”
Osborn drew her inspiration for environmentalism from her two daughters. She wanted better for them than she experienced growing up. Now, she wants to progress even further towards a better environment for her grandchildren. Over the years, Osborn traveled throughout the United States and noticed the difference between Alabama and other states concerning litter. Recently, as she drove to Texas to help a friend paint her home, Osborne knew the moment she crossed over the state line. Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia have wildflowers growing on the side of their interstates while Alabama grows trash.
“One of the problems is that people are used to the city picking up after them,” said Osborn. “People don’t think a thing about taking their couch that they don’t want anymore and putting it on the side of the road for the city to pick up. It gives a perception to people that it’s okay to litter. If you do that in your own home, you think nothing about doing it on the roadways.”
Osborn understands that Gadsden’s cleanup service is not a negative asset to the community, but believes that citizens should not abuse their privileges. Her neighbor, who recently moved in, has boxes awaiting city pickup and Osborn herself drug blown-down limbs from a storm to the side of the road. These situations do not constitute as “littering,” but there are certain actions that are inexcusable.
Of all the trash Osborn collected in her cleanups, the item she discovered in the largest quantities was alcohol. Empty beer cans and glass liquor bottles litter the edge of roads, the sign of a concern more alarming than waste. Osborn said that she picked up hundreds of miniature alcohol bottles. On one particular occasion, she could tell the way a person went home by the trail of 30 to 40 plastic Canadian Mist bottles scattered across the road like breadcrumbs.
“People are out drinking and driving,” said Osborn. “They think if they just throw it on the roadway, it never happened. That’s scary.”
Osborn jokingly deems herself a “tree-hugger,” but when it comes to the compassion she feels for the environment and the community where she lives, her love is unwavering. Osborn lives on Lookout Mountain and hikes there regularly. While trekking on the trails, she noticed trash down by the creek beds. She soon discovered that the garbage accumulating on the trails was not dumped there by hikers or passersby, but traveled there from the waterways.
Osborn explained that there are huge culverts that run underneath roads on Lookout Mountain like Lay Springs Road. When people toss trash from their car windows or dump garbage on the side of the road, rain washes the trash into the culverts that carry it directly to Noccalula Falls. Trash and waste hitch a ride with the rushing water that flows over Noccalula Falls, transporting garbage throughout the community’s waterways.
The trash that floats in Etowah County’s streams and rivers is not just fast food bags, paper goods or cans. While hiking on Jan. 25, Osborn walked down to the water on Lookout Mountain’s main trail. She found shards of broken plastic scattered on the ground and an entire empty gallon of Roundup Weed Killer.
“People don’t understand how horrible littering is,” said Osborn. “By tossing [trash] out on our roads, it’s going to make it into our waterways. A friend wanted me to look at a house they were thinking about buying in Whorton’s Bend. As you go around the curb by the Shell station, if you look, the water is full of litter. I’m looking and there’s just trash everywhere, [but] they didn’t see it.”
Turning a blind eye is perhaps the root of Etowah County’s battle with littering. People become numb to the trash they drive past each day, or individuals who do not litter consider themselves separate from the issue because they do not contribute to the problem. However, Osborn realizes that all Etowah County and Alabama citizens are affected by littering, because whether they litter or not, they have to live with the consequences of those who do. Osborn believes that if people open their eyes, their hearts might change.
“If we could just get more people to see the litter, then they can’t unsee it,” said Osborn. “Maybe once people see litter that they’re just so used to driving by, maybe they can’t unsee it and they’ll want to do something within their neighborhood.”
Osborn knows that there is more to see in Gadsden, Etowah County and Alabama than litter. Remove the garbage, waste and mess, and residents are left with the beauty that litter masks. She encourages citizens to adopt a sense of pride about their community and urges them to channel that pride into productive efforts to keep their neighborhoods unpolluted and litter-free. While holidays like Earth Day promote the conservation and preservation of the environment, one day a year is not enough. Osborn believes everyone should practice habits to eliminate litter and benefit the community 365 days of the year. Throughout the years, her dedication to conservation taught her a valuable lesson.
“I’ve learned that I can make a difference,” said Osborn. “Even if it’s a small difference and a temporary difference.”
Osborn asks nothing of others that she does not ask of herself. She seeks no recognition for her cleanups; she simply acts because she believes it in doing what is right, regardless of who notices.
But Osborn’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The first time she cleaned up Lookout Road, she filled five 30-gallon bags of trash. On Christmas Eve in 2019, she collected only three bags, which she views as progress. That same Christmas Eve, as Osborn worked in her baseball cap, gloves and boots, Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton drove by. Just a few weeks ago, Gadsden City Councilman, Chairman of the Public Safety Committee and District 7 Representative Ben Reed noticed Osborn out cleaning on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Guyton personally thanked Osborn for her efforts and Reed recognized Osborn in a city council meeting, presenting her as an example to Gadsden citizens of an individual who strives to keep her community clean, safe and beautiful. Through her commitment and determination, she strives to make her community a clean, pleasant place to live, one 30-gallon trash bag at a time.
“It’s not my responsibility to pick up your trash, but I care more about my neighborhood and my environment, so I take the time to try and make it a little better,” said Osborn. “This is my way of doing that.”