Carolina Curious: Why Is There So Much Trash On The Roads?

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Litter Sweep volunteers help clear trash from the roadside. The next sweep will run from April 10-24. Photograph courtesy of NCDOT.

There are familiar signs of spring in North Carolina — birds singing, daffodils popping up everywhere — but there’s also something unfamiliar going on that’s making the views around here far less scenic.

WFDD listener Karen Mercer asks, “Why is there so much trash on the roads and byways of North Carolina?”

State Roadside Environmental Engineer David Harris says he’s well aware of the problem, and the answer boils down to available resources. The North Carolina Department of Transportation took a huge hit with the high costs of road repairs following massive storms last year. Then came COVID-19 and the pandemic-related budget cuts.

“They were predicting a $700-million drop in revenue,” says Harris. “So, if someone told you that you were going to have a reduction in your salary by a significant amount, how many things would you put to a higher priority? Litter and roadside items don’t really kill people. So, we want to keep our roads safe. We want to keep traffic signals operating. That’s our priority. And so, yeah, we started pulling back hard when the forecasters started predicting that.”

Last month as revenues began returning, the Board of Transportation shifted more than $30-million dollars within the department to contract more workers and address roadside issues. Harris says since January they’ve picked up more than two million pounds of trash along the more than 80,000 miles of roads they control, with hopes of collecting an additional $18-million pounds by year’s end. But there’s much ground to make up following the temporary shutdown of all NCDOT-sponsored Litter Sweep programs due to the pandemic.

“This time last year, we didn’t know what to do,” says Harris. “We were being told to wear masks, stay safe — so, we felt like it was just best to cancel that event because we weren’t sure. That led us into the fall. But now, people wear masks, and we as a society have learned how to handle COVID-19 and we feel like people are going to go out there and they’re going to be safe. So, the April 10 through 24 [Litter Sweep] is still on.”

That’s welcome news for WFDD listener Keisha Redd. The Winston-Salem attorney says she passes piles of litter during her frequent drives along Highway 52.

“If people wanted to volunteer and clean it up, is there somewhere we would need to get permission from?” she asks. “I imagine they don’t want just groups of people walking around the highway.”

Harris says the department’s volunteer base is the backbone of the operation, with Adopt-A-Highway program volunteers alone picking up roughly 160,000 pounds of trash to date this year. For individuals like Redd willing to roll up their sleeves, Harris has a ready solution.

“I would encourage them to look up Litter Sweep,” he says. “At the NCDOT website, there’s a lot of information there. It’s going to tell you who to contact in your county. We have resources like trash bags, gloves, and vests. And that individual at the county DOT office can say, ‘That’s a good road,’ or ‘Maybe you need to pick another road; our traffic’s pretty bad out there,’ and they’ll try and steer them toward a safer environment.”

Harris says he’s troubled by the amount of trash that continues to be discarded along roadways. Last year NCDOT spent roughly $20-million dollars cleaning it up, money he says that could have been spent improving roadways and bridges. He adds as the current generation of volunteers gets older and less able to get out for Litter Sweeps, he’s excited to see more young people getting involved and taking pride in their communities and their roads.

“North Carolina has a history of looking really good,” says Harris. “Our wildflower program is legendary. People come to this state and will detour on their way down south or up north to come here. But recently we’ve been getting these letters saying, ‘Oh my god, what’s happened to North Carolina?’ So, the Department of Transportation wants to get the state back to looking great, because when this COVID-19 is over with, tourism is going to come back full steam and I know everybody wants to get out of their houses. So, just make sure that the trash ends up where it needs to go.”

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you’re experiencing.

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