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The Incredible Costs of Trash

litter, typical roadside trash

If trash is worth nothing, why does it cost so much? The expenses are both tangible and indefinable. Each state must spend millions of dollars a year to remove right-of-way litter. The cost in economic development is substantial, too. Businesses avoid investments in areas that are full of litter and graffiti. There is an aesthetic cost to the public. The quality of the scenery is diminished when the view is covered with trash. You might think trash is worth nothing, but when you toss it on the roadsides, it costs an incredible amount of money to remove.

A typical roadside contains a huge amount of litter—glass whiskey bottles, beer cans, strange items of clothing, old tires, and other items you couldn’t imagine. It’s hard to see at 70 MPH, but if you walk any public road corridor, you will find it everywhere. The litter on the roadsides cannot be left in place to decompose, and much of it is not biodegradable. Litter must be picked up prior to mowing. If not, we would be commuting through confetti each day. State department of transportation crews and equipment costs millions of taxpayer dollars annually. They spend millions more to pay contract mowers to remove garbage from the interstates before mowing. County maintenance crews use a significant part of the local budget for litter removal. The huge amounts of money spent cleaning up litter evaporate each year. Once litter is removed, more is tossed on the roadsides to replace it.

A lot of people think the perfect answer to the expense of litter removal is using prison details. It’s an interesting thought, punishing people in jail by having them pick up items we illegally toss out of our cars and trucks! It costs a considerable amount of money and labor to monitor and transport prison crews to roadside cleanup areas, it is hard to find enough benign types of incarcerated people to safely allow them to walk free-range, it costs to transport litter crews to and from dirty roadsides, and it costs money to pay for labor to monitor prison crews. The financial logistics of using transients for litter pickup has many of the same issues. Picking up with crews that need monitoring and who don’t have their own transportation is a less-than-perfect solution.

The most effective campaign against litter is a combination of education, prevention, enforcement, and local environmental courts to prosecute and provide consequences to people who deliberately pollute public property. There may be some evidence that people who litter are often the same people who commit serious crimes, and enforcement of litter laws might alert law enforcement to potential baddies. People’s sense of social obligation is eroded if they see obvious lack of enforcement of litter laws. The same litterbugs keep doing what they know is wrong, without repercussion. Litter laws are rarely enforced because it seems like such a little crime, but of existing laws unsecured loads cause the most litter. They pollute the roadsides with tons of trash over and over. A separate environmental court to address litter and dumping laws and stand behind the officers who charge litterbugs would bring awareness to the local community. It would be appropriate to sentence litterers (including waste management company CEOs allowing unsecured loads on their trucks), to pick-up duty, rather than sentencing unrelated criminals to the dirty task of cleanup.