Had it up to here with roadside refuse

March 16, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance

IT'S MARCH, that trashy time of year.

The snow banks have melted, and the wind is kicking up all the litter concealed for so much of this winter. But the weeds and brush haven't sprouted enough yet, or greened up enough to hide it all again.

All this roadside rubbish drives me nuts. I can't figure out what thought process prompts people to heave an empty six-pack, or a bag of burger wrappers and french-fry cartons out the car window.

But there it is. Tons of it. Look around you while you drive. If it's not bottles and cans and boxes in the weeds, then it's blue bags fluttering in the trees.

Here's what a chump I am: About once a month, I grab a pair of heavy gloves and a big plastic bag, or two, and drive to a section of Paper Mill Road near my home. Then I get out and start walking up the road, picking up trash.

It's a stretch of no more than 100 yards, but I don't pick up everything. I figure the opposite side of the road is the responsibility of the people who live over there. And I don't go past the place where the shoulder gets so narrow I'd be taking my life in my hands. I also skip most of those glaring white cigarette butts -- not because they degrade (trust me, they don't), but because there are too many of them and they're too gross.

But for all the rest, I walk along, bend over, and pull as much as I can back into the county's approved refuse stream.

Light American beers seem very popular among the brain-dead who trash up my strip between the asphalt and the woods. They're also partial to those airline-size bottles of vodka and whiskey. I try not to think about whether these drinkers were also driving. If so, we are all in more serious danger than we think.

Soda bottles and cans, and McDonald's and Burger King meals are staples on this road, as are Kools and Marlboros. But people who drink bottled water, fruit drinks and bottled teas don't care if they trash up the place, either.

Some people heave their refuse piecemeal. Others package it all nicely in a paper or plastic bag and toss out the whole bundle. That helps, actually, so long as the sun and rain have not degraded the bags so badly they fall apart when I lift them.

I've noted that many of the vehicles that travel Paper Mill Road are coming apart. I've found a passel of unidentified auto parts, plus assorted bolts and belts, hubcaps, mufflers and tires.

There are plenty of discarded batteries and toys. I've found shattered action figures and wondered whether the kids lost their grip while flying them in the car's slipstream. Or maybe Dad or Mom triggered their ejection seats.

Some stuff clearly falls off the garbage trucks. There was a big blue bag of bottles and cans out there the other day, right after the neighborhood recycling pickup. It would be nice if Baltimore County's contractors weren't part of the problem.

Refuse retrieval has its rewards. I stumbled upon the secret tree where the crows roost while they labor to crack open the golf balls they've stolen from nearby fairways. Eventually they give up on these odd, dimpled "eggs," and drop them to the ground. I pick them up -- a couple of dozen so far -- and give them to golfing friends.

Then there are those precious few hours, or maybe a day, before the next wave of refuse rolls in.

Somebody once told me that Americans routinely threw stuff out of their car windows until after World War II. They said it wasn't until the 1950s, when so many more Americans hit the roads, that we began hearing anti-litter ads, and thinking twice about littering.

But if that were true, wouldn't our roadsides be cleaner now than they used to be? I can't believe they are. Things got so bad along my road a few weeks back that I phoned my councilman. To my astonishment, his staff called the State Highway Administration, and they had it all picked up in a day or two.

Now it's a mess again. I wish we had more paid crews out there picking up after the civicly challenged. They do it in Europe. I've never seen litter there like we have here.

Are we too proud to pick up after ourselves, or each other? Or not proud enough?

Frank Roylance is a science writer for The Sun.

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