Keep Columbus Beautiful aims to eliminate roadside trash by educating the city's youngest residents and empowering them to create change.

Every Sunday morning near High Street and Morse Road in North Columbus, Joanna Serio and her 9-year-old daughter, Anna Patton, go on a trash hunt.

With trash grabbers at the ready, they snatch up blowing plastic bags, fast-food cups, cigarette butts and all manner of garbage carelessly tossed onto the sidewalks and streets.

“We don't do church, so we do this instead,” said Serio, an avowed litter-hater. “It drives me nuts when I drive down the street and see that stuff floating around. I don't want to look at it, and I think this is a great way for my daughter to understand that if you want a change, you have to do something about it.”

While it's hard to believe that trash still litters our walks, streets and lawns after decades of pleas to “Keep America Beautiful,” that's the reality, said Sherri Palmer, manager of the city's Keep Columbus Beautiful program.

Research by the national Keep America Beautiful program has found that 51.2 billion pieces of litter appear on U.S. roadways each year, costing $11.5 billion to clean up. On top of that, litter lowers property values, hurts wildlife and looks, well, trashy.

“Keep Columbus Beautiful's mission right now is totally litter,” said Palmer. “We've recognized that generations of young people didn't get the message.”

Palmer's three-person staff has an extensive educational program aimed at teaching elementary, middle and high school students why litter is a problem and how they can clean it up. It includes the “Pick It Up Litter Activity Guide” for elementary-school teachers, an alley litter prevention challenge for middle schoolers and a litter-free campus commitment for high school students. The program also offers teacher workshops and facilitates neighborhood cleanups.

“Some people have not been brought up to do the right thing,” Palmer said. “But once kids learn, they bring that knowledge home and teach their parents.”

With Palmer's help, Amber Bernal encouraged an entire school to fight litter. She did so when she was a teacher and instructional coach at Avondale Elementary School in Franklinton, before becoming the elementary reading coordinator for Columbus City Schools two years ago.

“There's a lot of litter in Franklinton, and we were making them more aware of it,” Bernal said. “I did it to teach kids social responsibility and pride about where they live and having enough pride in yourself to not litter.”

Once a year, Bernal helped organize a neighborhood cleanup. Younger students picked up litter near the school, while older ones branched out into designated areas. “After they came back to school, they'd talk about the type of trash they found and where they found it so they could understand ways to reduce it and eliminate it,” she said. “It was kind of eye-opening to see how many bags of trash they got in a short amount of time.”

As a third-grade teacher, Bernal also incorporated “Wartville Wizard,” a Keep Columbus Beautiful book by Don Madden, into her curriculum. In the story, people who litter find it sticks to their bodies and can't be removed until they stop being litterbugs.

The efforts, Bernal said, were worthwhile. “The kids really enjoyed it, and I think it had an impact on them,” she said. “If we don't teach them when they're younger, it's hard to stop the behavior when they're older.”

As the community liaison officer for the Hilltop area, Columbus Police Officer Brian Newsome sees way too much litter. “It invites the bad element in, because when people see litter they think people don't care about the neighborhood,” said Newsome, a 25-year police veteran.

Newsome talks about the problem at community meetings, works with residents on annual cleanups and reaches out to kids. “Some of them may never have been taught that it's wrong to toss a can out the car window,” he said. “If they don't know it's wrong, they'll continue to do it. We have to get them to realize that it's ugly.”

Hanna Greer-Brown, communications manager at SWACO, talks about litter when students tour the Franklin County landfill, helps with neighborhood cleanups and makes staff members available to speak to young people. “We place a lot of value on reaching out to our younger residents, because we can help shape their minds,” Greer-Brown said. “Kids are already environmentally focused, and the response from them is very positive.”

Serio and Anna hope that their efforts, too, encourage others to think twice about littering. In addition to their Sunday cleanups, Serio organizes a neighborhood litter pickup each April in northern Clintonville. “In the beginning the response was really low, which I understand, because a lot of people don't like to pick up trash,” she said. “But now I get a lot of people to sign up.”

This year, Anna organized her own litter pickup at Indian Springs Elementary School, where she recently finished third grade. “If we don't litter, our world would be 100 percent cleaner,” she said. “Then our world would stay beautiful.”