Nature’s notebook

To fight litter, here’s one easy weapon

Plastic bags, plastic foam cups and plastic bottles are among the most common types of litter spotted on N.C. roadways. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, “The Crying Indian” is an iconic image.  The televised public service announcement for Keep America Beautiful launched on April 22, 1971, the first anniversary of Earth Day. The spot opens with a man in Native American garb paddling a canoe on a placid river. Soon, he encounters floating garbage and an industrial harbor. Smokestacks belch to ominous music. After landing on a littered beach, he confronts a busy highway. A motorist rolls down her window and tosses a bag of trash. It splatters at his feet. The camera cuts to the man’s handsome, rugged face. A tear trickles from the corner of his eye.  “People start pollution,” the narrator intones.  “People can stop it.” (See the commercial on YouTube.)

The spot seems dated in our post-modern era – especially since Iron Eyes Cody was reportedly of Sicilian heritage – but after my sister and I spent hours picking up trash along our roadsides in the Uwharries, there’s clearly a need for a new anti-litter campaign. 

Paper bags along the highway. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

Roadside litter is never more apparent than in winter, when vegetation is stripped to its essence. I enjoy the serenity of the winter landscape, but as I drove through the Uwharries, my eyes could find no rest. Every Styrofoam cup, plastic bottle and cardboard box marred the quiet beauty. 

Roadside litter isn’t simply an aesthetic issue – it’s also bad for wildlife. Traces of food and drink lure many animals, even roving dogs, putting them dangerously close to traffic. The same goes for raptors in pursuit of roadside rodents. Animals can be poisoned by cigarette butts, cut by jagged bottles, strangled by six-pack rings and sliced by aluminum cans. Litter washes into waterways, where it can be ingested by fish and other aquatic creatures. It can contribute to algal blooms. Litter also puts humans at risk.  Clogged storm drains create pools of water that can cause drivers to hydroplane.

In North Carolina, it was once common to see a prison crew picking up trash along our major highways under the watchful eye of a guard armed with a rifle and Ray-Bans. That’s changing. Even though inmates make only $1 per day, private contractors have proven to be more cost effective. They can cover more ground with less supervision. In the most recent legislative session, the N.C. House and Senate both seemed interested in shifting all funding for roadside litter removal to private contractors.  While some people argue there’s a social benefit to having inmates work and repay their debt to society, greater efficiency might allow crews to move beyond the interstates and major highways and address some secondary roads.

Alas, this still won’t cover the scenic byways in the Uwharries. On country roads and city streets alike, the state relies on volunteers. In 1998, the N.C. Department of Transportation established the Adopt-A-Highway program to encourage groups to take responsibility for a 2-mile stretch of road. They agree to pick up litter four times per year. In return, they get a sign to mark the designated area. This is sometimes done in memory of a loved one. NCDOT provides garbage bags and safety vests and collects the heavy bags.

Keep N.C. Beautiful tries to make picking up litter fun and even profitable. Its Unusual Litter Contest “awards cash prizes bi-annually to individuals or groups who pick up bizarre litter during a community clean-up drive.” Past entries have included a diamond ring, a toilet seat and the lower half of a mannequin.

We found a few items that left us scratching our heads – small tires, a SaltLife t-shirt and mismatched socks – but the most interesting was a debit card receipt. A woman had purchased two “GROC” items and one “CIGS” item at the Midway Mart in Sophia. (I will refrain from sharing your name, this time, but you know who you are.) On our stretch of road the worst offenders, by far, were Bojangles cups and boxes, Bud Light cans and Mountain Dew bottles. 

The LandTrust of Central North Carolina has adopted this section of Low Water Bridge Road in the Uwharries. Photo: Travis Morehead

Public health officials will be glad to know we found relatively few tobacco products, and water bottles were second only to Mountain Dew. Obviously, their public education campaigns have been more effective than those targeting roadside litter. A friend suggested a social media shame campaign might inspire companies to fund cleanup crews and/or educate their consumers about proper trash disposal. That approach would be far more aggressive than signs saying “Keep North Carolina Clean and Green,” a slogan that lacks the punch of my favorite state effort, “Don’t Mess with Texas.”

Really, this shouldn’t be so hard. Many environmental problems are complicated, and solving them is expensive. This is low-hanging fruit. Accidents will happen – we found empty bags of deer corn that had probably blown from the bed of a truck – but the willful disposal of garbage on public or private property is simply inconsiderate. Maybe the Adopt-A-Highway program needs to work upstream.  Instead of providing garbage bags to pick up roadside litter, why not give drivers smaller bags to keep in their cars and encourage them to throw away their trash at home.