ROADSIDE GARBAGE: Ugly, Expensive, Inexhaustible

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Most of us have a stretch of highway in our lives, and this is one of mine. It’s a mess.

To be honest, I hadn’t noticed a few weeks ago, when a viewer who uses the same stretch of interstate emailed, I said I’d do what I could, which wasn’t much. The truth is, Iowa’s roadsides are in a terrible position—buried in garbage, and with only a distracted public and a cash-strapped Department of Transportation to turn to.

“It can cost us around $700,000 a year, statewide.”Annette Dunn makes no secret that cleaning up litter is the DOT’s least-favorite job.

“It’s taking away from the road maintenance that we can do,” says the DOT's media relations director.

And like the road work, garbage detail never ends.

“I have some information on six months at the end of last year," says Andy Loonan, Field Services Coordinator at the DOT's Ames office, "we picked up 700 cubic yards.”

That’s about 70 dump truck loads, just in central Iowa.

“Our busiest area is up here at 30 and 35," says supervisor, Jim Van Sickle, speaking of the exit/entrance "cloverleaf", "and in an area like that we could get 10-12 bags off one loop.”

There are four such loops at the interchange.

We tend to think of roadside trash as bottles and cans, but…

“About 2% of what you see on the roadside is deposit items," says Gerry Schnepf, director of the non-profit, anti-litter advocacy group, Keep Iowa Beautiful. "Most of it comes from packaging, fast food, and plastics.”

Iowa's Bottle Bill was founded in the late 1970s to combat roadside litter.  It has done an outstanding job, pushing around 86% of deposit-eligible containers into recycling bins.  But the explosion in the popularity of bottled water, Gatorade, and other containers, and heavy resistance from the grocery industry to the expansion of the deposit program to include those containers has added to litter.

Keep Iowa Beautiful says that litter comes in many forms, with cigarette butts and plastics making up the majority. We’re phasing out tobacco, but using more packaging than ever.

“In 2002-2003, we spent $13 million in public funds—taxpayer dollars…in picking up litter and debris after people throw it away,” Schnepf says.

Roadside garbage is not just the most expensive kind, it’s also the most worthless.

There are plenty of recyclables out there, but when they go into the orange bags…

“It goes to the landfill,” says Loonan.

It all joins Metro Waste Authority’s "Band Aid on a bullet wound" out on Highway 163. Director Tom Hadden’s only consolation is that it’s better here than out on the streets.

“That makes a big difference in where you live and how people perceive your town and community," he says. "The first thing you notice in a community is ‘is it clean or not?’”

Perhaps no litter is clean, but some sure seems dirtier than others.

Back at the DOT, Jim Van Sickle has the prime example.

“This is what we refer to as a trucker bomb," he says, kicking a large, clear bottle half-full of a yellow-brown liquid, "and that is urine in that.”

The "trucker bomb" is a nationwide problem, graphic enough to prompt states from Washington to Virginia to launch tougher campaigns to combat them. In Oregon, the fine for tossing one out the window is $10,000.

In Iowa, littering is a meager $70 fine, and that’s considered to be little help in its prevention. 1.5% of litter-related tax dollars are spent on enforcement.  98% goes to clean-up, and prevention programs aimed at the root of the problem get almost nothing.

Still, they’ve made a difference.

“The best public service announcement that was ever done was the crying Indian, the tearful Indian, Iron Eyes Cody," says Schnepf, "and that started a change in people’s attitudes.”

That campaign debuted 41 years ago this week, and though it was a hit, you get the idea that the tears would continue, today.

It’s sad but not hopeless.  The Iowa DOT, Metro Waste Authority and Keep Iowa Beautiful are working together and you can help them in three ways: by reporting roadside littering to 888-NO-L-I-T-T-R.  By joining an Adopt-A-Highway program near you.  And of course, by changing your own habits.

“It’s a part of developing the right character in people,” says Schnepf.

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