Information pours from the empties

Survey: By counting the beer cans and bottles tossed on the nation's highways, Dennis Brezina hopes to raise awareness of in-car drinking.

February 28, 2000|By Barbara Hall | Barbara Hall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHESAPEAKE CITY -- Aluminum Anonymous, Dennis Brezina's mission of the past four years, is more than a standard anti-litter campaign or a conventional crusade against drinking and driving. He calls it "pop roadside archaeology."

With his artist wife, Debbie, the Cecil County man has scoured 28,000 miles of roadway in 44 states, making meticulous records of every beer can and bottle they have encountered en route. He has counted some 100,000 so far, while developing a system that estimates the rate at which they are discarded. His findings ultimately go to state and federal officials, law enforcement professionals and substance abuse-prevention and adopt-a-highway organizations.

His aim: Raise awareness about the frequency of in-vehicle drinking in a country where alcohol is estimated to be a factor in nearly 40 percent of fatal crashes and drunken driving costs businesses and taxpayers some $1.2 billion a year.

The numbers produced by his semi-scientific "canology" formula (beer cans and bottles discarded per mile of highway per year in a particular area) can be equally alarming. Maryland and Delaware roads, in fact, have produced the highest rate he's measured so far (1,500 per mile per year), far above the national average of 975. By contrast, Maine's per mile rate was 350.

His effort has drawn the attention of several newspapers and of Tom Brokaw on the "NBC Nightly News" a few years back.

Brezina, who is retired at age 62, comes by his calling honestly. A recovering alcoholic for 25 years, he was educated at the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard. ("I think with a Harvard master's degree, I probably know a little bit about counting," he says with characteristic dry humor.) He subsequently worked on Capitol Hill as, among other things, assistant to former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), with whom he helped found the first Earth Day in 1970.

After spending a lot of the past four years on the road, Brezina says, it's sweet indeed to return to Maryland. "The quiet here, you know. Your own bed. It's always wonderful to get home to Chesapeake City." We spoke with him there about his project.

How did Aluminum Anonymous get started?

I stumbled onto the problem when I found out, shortly after we moved here, that I could get aluminum cans from here and there, and bring them into a homeless shelter in south Cecil County. They could use the aluminum for recycling and make a little money off of it. It just sounded like a neat, small project that was very feasible. And so, on the way to the post office or to the store, I would stop occasionally to pick up cans.

What astounded me, by virtue of going over these same routes for a few weeks in a row, was how fast they were being replaced by other cans. I was also amazed by the fact that a high, high percentage, well over half, were beer cans. That got me interested, intrigued, to how extensive this problem is. At that time, there was no sense that I would carry it beyond the county, maybe just the local area. But I really wanted to find out a little bit more about this seemingly excessive amount of cans and bottles that were piling up on our roadsides.

Have there been any changes in your approach?

Yes, it's evolved. I'm finding an incredible number of substance-abuse professionals, maybe a hundred or so, mainly at the county level, have picked up on this and are using the data in some fashion in their programs: gathering [cans and bottles] on their own to complement the hard data from our roadside findings, then asking kids about their behavior as to alcohol inside automobiles. There's a whole variety of ways that the data has been used, and that's been nice, just great.

Talk about your networking.

There are about 20 people from around the country I keep in contact with, people who are for the most part active in their own local areas, trying to make changes there. I've been fortunate to find them. Just recently, I got a letter from the head of the Indiana coalition working to prevent under-age drinking. They'd actually taken some surveys of teen-agers last summer, including questions about their in-vehicle drinking, and they sent me the results from that. That kind of information is golden.

What's been your wife's role in all this?

She's had to put up with this. She's been very supportive the whole time, very understanding. I don't think she thought -- neither of us thought -- it would take on the kind of dimension it has. But her help has been invaluable.

Have there been any other surprises from your travels?

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