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Roadside Trash:  Causes and Solutions

Entry 6:  March 29, 2012 (updated October 23, 2012)

For several years I've picked up trash along different stretches of roadway.  I do it to make the world a better place and as a way to do exercise that produces a benefit to society rather than just to burn calories.  Trash pickup is an endless job though; it's hard sometimes to realize that there's no way to make permanent progress.  

While doing all that work I have plenty of time to think and I've come up with some ideas that might make a dent in roadside litter.  It started with analyzing what gets thrown away.  Much of the trash comes from products involved with addiction, such as beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette boxes and butts.  A lesser amount is fast-food packaging and cups, followed by food packaging from the grocery, and finally random non-food items.  Below is what I found on a recent cleanup trip along Old Highway 8 near Lyle, Washington.  This road is near a lake, so there's a disproportionate amount of fishing items such as bait cups.  Other than that, it's fairly typical.  Contrary to what most think, I've never found drugs or syringes over the several years I've done this work.  We hear about it on the news a lot, but most trash is quite boring.  

Typical roadside trash (click to enlarge)  Litter Brought to you by:  Coors McDonalds Pepsico Monster Husqvarna NatureValley BurgerKing Smirnoff Busch SteelReserve 7Up Copenhagen V8 RedBull

Just like on TV commercials, I tried to turn most items so their corporate logos are visible.  These companies deserve some bad press for contributing to the mess along America's roads.  Some of the items say "Please recycle," but as you can see the message is not getting through.  If you click on the photo above it will open a high-resolution version (3MB file.)  The collection above came from along about 1/2 mile of country road.  I've cleaned that stretch many times before, so it's representative of what appears in the course of a couple of months.  

I see two solutions to the problem of roadside trash.  The first is to fine the companies producing product packaging and use the money generated to fund cleanup efforts.  It would be relatively easy to do this, just collect trash along a sample of roadways and sort it by the manufacturer, grade it by weight or volume, and then assess a fee.  

The second approach, while more complicated, would attack the problem at its source.  This would be to tax all product packaging.  The tax would be calculated on how biodegradable the packaging is, how easily it's recycled, and just as in the first suggestion above, on actual measurement of how much trash is found along roadways.  Money from the tax would fund cleanup and recycling efforts.  

Both of these approaches would create jobs cleaning up litter.  The packaging tax would be especially effective at spurring manufacturers to create more efficient packaging that creates less litter, and perhaps find ways to eliminate some kinds of packaging altogether.  We should also allocate a portion of the money collected to addiction treatment programs.  That would reduce alcohol and cigarette consumption and decrease litter as well.  

Today most states have a deposit on carbonated beverage containers, but as you can see in the picture above they still make up a huge portion of trash even though in theory one could make money by picking up and returning the cans and bottles.  We could increase the deposit and that would certainly help.  But it wouldn't address the trash coming from other kinds of packaging.  At the current redemption rate of 5 cents per container in Oregon, I couldn't even buy half a gallon of gasoline from the cans and bottles above.  Oregon pioneered a bottle-return bill but the latest version was watered down by retailers and beverage companies.  There is a provision for refunding a dime per container but it would require the number of cans returned to drop below 80% of sales for two years.  

There is a possible shortcoming to these ideas, and that's the notion that people might be more inclined to litter because someone will clean up after them.  But people who litter already think that today, and I don't think there will be much of an increase of littering, if any.  

Some of the alcoholic beverage containers are likely discarded by underage youth who are drinking in their cars and don't want the containers to be found at home.  That's a tough problem to solve.  Reducing underage drinking has never been very successful.  But we could certainly take some money from the ideas here and put it toward better education and enforcement campaigns.  Georgia has studied the profile of people who litter, and the majority of people who litter deliberately are young males between the ages of 11 and 24.  I think anyone caught littering in that age group should be the first to work on a cleanup crew.  

We can also expect some ranting from the right-wingers who claim that we shouldn't be paying a tax on product packaging.  I don't think the tax would be very high though.  Also it would likely decrease over time as manufacturers found ways to reduce wasteful packaging and improve recycling.  Either a tax or a manufacturer charge is more practical than trying to more strictly enforce littering laws.  The cost of patrolling to catch violators is prohibitive and couldn't be done without an intrusive police presence.  We know who makes the trash in the first place, and that is the manufacturers.  They are easy to locate and bear responsibility for the problem too.  

While on the topic of trash, Nestle Beverage has a plan to bottle water from a spring in Cascade Locks and sell it.  Since the spring is on state land and feeds the local fish hatchery, they've come up with a proposal to provide well water from the city to the hatchery and take the natural water.  That water is a public resource and belongs to everyone in the Columbia Gorge, as well as to the plants and animals that rely on fresh water to survive.  We shouldn't squander this spring for the benefits of a corporation, and neither should water from the Columbia Gorge end up contributing to the growing mountain of discarded water bottles.  Nestle only wants the water because it's free, and they've found a town that's willing to gamble its future on this scheme in exchange for jobs.  If Nestle were serious about helping small towns, they could purify water from the city's well and sell that instead, creating the same number of jobs and leaving the natural spring alone.  

Just about every state has studied the composition of roadside litter in ways far more detailed than my own analysis.  I've yet to hear of anyone proposing a fine on manufacturers or a packaging tax though, likely due to industry opposition.  We have all the data we need and have spent all the money we need to spend to understand the problem; what we lack is the political will to create a solution.  Until we do, many volunteers will waste tireless hours picking up a never-ending stream of trash.  

October 23, 2012 update:  After making another trash pickup, I found an interesting connection between this story and the one below about Washington State Parks.  Rowland Lake State Park lies along the road and it's seen visitation drop to near zero due to the Discover Pass fee hikes.  The law of unintended consequences (see maxim below) has taken effect and now people park at the junction of Old Highway 8 and SR-14, where parking is free, and camp and litter in the woods there.  No one polices the site and there are no trash receptacles.  So the perverse result of raising state park fees is that we now have more litter.  

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