Litter back in state's fast lane

Growth, weakening of message from '70s getting most of blame

May 09, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

On a forest-lined highway ramp, Raleigh Medley takes silent inventory.

A banana peel, a Poland Spring water bottle, jumbo Burger King cup, crumpled Reese's Cup wrapper, grease-stained paper sacks, scraps of hand-scribbled notes, broken beer bottles and dozens more bits of trash are scattered along a 30-yard stretch of the ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel.

Medley is a maintenance engineer with the Maryland State Highway Administration. It hasn't been all that many days since his crews cleaned up this small curve. He is offended, not to mention frustrated.

"In the past, we could do this work with two spot crews and keep the problem contained," said Medley. There's no way now. In his district of Anne Arundel County, five full-time crews struggle to keep on top of the problem.

The highway litterbug has re-emerged with a vengeance in Maryland and across the country. Growth is one obvious source of the trouble.

"We have many, many more miles of road today than we did 20 years ago, many more cars on the road, many more people eating meals on the road," said Susanne Woods, senior vice president of Keep America Beautiful Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

To be specific, 74,000 more miles of road across the country, 21 million more cars and 85,000 more fast-food restaurants.

But also contributing is an apparent lag in the anti-litter mentality that became so prevalent more than two decades ago and was succeeded by the recycling movement. Teen-agers are among the worst litterers, studies show. That realization has triggered an overhaul in strategy.

"We are redoubling our efforts to focus attention on a whole new generation of people and the influx of new people moving to this country," Woods said. "Everybody has to be taught."

Keep America Beautiful has dusted off its famous 1970s ad campaign, which influenced a generation of baby boomers and their parents. The American Indian who tears up at the sight of trash spoiling the landscape has returned with a new slogan: "Back by popular neglect."

Maryland appears to be experiencing a decided increase in littering, but it is not clear exactly how much more trash is blowing around the state.

The state has no uniform system for measuring it from district to district but estimates it is picking up 61 percent more litter than it did 10 years ago. That means about 2,500 more truckloads of trash, 5 tons each.

The cost of picking up trash in Maryland has jumped from $4 million to $6 million in three years.

Participation in Maryland's Adopt-a-Highway program is down about 15 percent, but demand for the program's trash bags is up 20 percent -- about 25,000 bags last year.

Complaints to highway officials are also growing. Litter is at an "epidemic stage," one Bethesda woman wrote the state Department of Transportation last summer. "People waiting at lights throw cigarettes and other trash out the window while they are waiting. You would need a shovel to pick up [some of] the debris. Every exit and entrance to the Beltway is full of debris."

One of Baltimore County's three state highway districts collected 265 bags of litter in 1997. That district's count this year -- after just four months -- is 419 bags.

Some states have found that the impact of littering can go beyond mere aesthetics.

A German industrialist scouting prospective business sites in Mississippi recently ended his trip abruptly at the sight of trash cluttering a highway intersection. He said he couldn't expect his employees to live in a place so short on local pride, a town official later explained.

And in South Carolina, a college football coach made headlines last year after fretting publicly that his state's litter problem was discouraging potential recruits for the team.

In response to the accumulation of trash, a growing number of states are stepping up penalties for litterers.

Others are taking innovative steps to crack down.

Pennsylvania is among a few states hoping to shame residents into good behavior. Citizens can report litterers by calling an 800 number. The offenders receive a politely worded letter from the state and a car trash bag.

Florida for the past few years has invested in detailed studies to guide it in the fight.

"We've been working on this issue for over five years, and the statistics in Florida are crystal clear: We see dramatic increases," said John Schert, director of the University of Florida's Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste. Five years ago, the state set a goal to reduce litter by 50 percent. But it increased by 18 percent.

"I've talked to people all over the country about this issue, and I suspect this data is true in a lot of other places," Schert said.

In Maryland, there seems to be a new arrogance among motorists about chucking trash out the window, those involved in highway cleanups believe. At a roadside area off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway last week, trash accumulated in large piles alongside seven mostly empty, boldly labeled trash cans.

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