Four years ago, employees at the Howard County Office of Environmental Sustainability came up with an idea for people who want to do their part for Earth Day but don't know where to start.
It's called the 20-Minute Cleanup — essentially a way to urge people, either on a whim or through precise planning, to pitch in to aid the environment.
"Every year, just before Earth Day, the county government would get a lot of calls from people saying,'We want to do something for the environment, what's going on?' " said Elissa Reineck, volunteer coordinator for the county Office of Environmental Sustainability.
"We always do have opportunities for people to participate in tree plantings and stream cleanups," she added, "but we wanted to come up with something that would make it wider and more accessible to people who wanted to make a difference.
"We wanted something that they could do quickly and at the last minute, so we came up with the idea of the 20-Minute Cleanup."
The campaign calls upon groups of people — schools, offices, clubs, youth groups and others — to get together as teams and devote a less than half an hour going outside and picking up litter and debris.
"When we initially started the program, we really had business and strip malls in mind, where people could go out on their lunch hours and clean up litter and debris," she added. "We do have some of that, but it's particularly taken off at schools."
"Last year was our best year," Reineck said. "Over 2,300 people participated."
Over the past several days, the office has heard about events throughout the county. And while the official 20-Minute Cleanup Day was Thursday, it's still not too late for any group or individual who wants to celebrate Earth Day to participate. Earth Day is Monday.
If they so choose, groups and individuals are invited to email Reineck at email@example.com and provide her with a brief report on the fruits of their labors, along with some photos, if available. In turn, they will get an acknowledgment of their participation on the county website and an official thank-you.
Each year, based on this information, the county tracks how many people participate and how many bags of trash and recycling they collect. The website — livegreenhoward.com — provides details about the 20-Minute Cleanup, information about environmental programs and organizations in county government and throughout the community, and tips and other resources.
"The 20 Minute Cleanup keeps growing every year," said County Executive Ken Ulman in a statement. "Even if you weren't able to participate on Thursday, you can participate through Earth Day and beyond. In fact, you can make every day Earth Day by picking up trash and litter whenever and wherever you see it."
The cleanup effort was just one of many Earth Day events involving by the Office of Environmental Sustainability. On Thursday, Reineck took part in a tree planting Rockburn Park in Elkridge with students from Resurrection-St. Paul School while she was also preparing to rally county employees for a 20-Minute Cleanup event later in the day at the county office building.
Reineck said people in Howard County seem to readily embrace the idea of environmental awareness and stewardship — they just need to know how to participate.
"The 20-Minute Cleanup is for people who either don't have the time or who might not want to spend a whole Saturday morning at an event, like a stream cleanup or a tree planting," Reineck said.
"It's very flexible and very easy, and you can make a difference on your own time and at your own location," she said. "All I want is a quick email telling me how many people participated, how many bags of trash they picked up, and maybe some fun pictures."