Between state prisoners, contractors and its own employees, the N.C. Department of Transportation spent nearly $19 million picking up litter along North Carolina's roads and highways last year.
To a lot of people, it seems like a losing battle.
Elizabeth Olsson wonders how the state's roads get so trashy. As she drives between her home in Apex and Dillard Drive Middle School in Raleigh, where she teaches sixth grade language arts, Olsson sees the bottles and cans, fast food cups and wrappers and plastic buckets along the way and thinks we can do better.
“I just think it’s a mindset that we don’t talk about anymore,” Olsson said. “People are becoming numb to it, like shootings or murders. It’s numbing.”
The trash is also dispiriting to those responsible for cleaning it up. Don Lee, the state roadside environmental engineer for NCDOT until his recent retirement, said the department hired contractors in 2016 to pick up garbage along sections of Interstate 40 in Wake and Johnston counties that hadn’t been cleaned in a while.
“They were absolutely overwhelmed and inundated with large volumes of trash,” Lee said. “We had a couple of contractors who just gave up. They said they couldn’t do it for the price they bid."
Litter along the highway has been an issue in North Carolina for decades; the public distress over the roadside mess prompted NCDOT to begin its Adopt-a-Highway program to enlist volunteers in the cleanup in 1988.
Now, at the behest of the legislature and two governors, NCDOT has changed its strategy toward trash to try to be more efficient and effective. Volunteers still play an important role; thousands will don orange vests and gloves as part of this month’s Spring Litter Sweep that begins Monday.
But gone, as of last summer, is one of the mainstays of litter cleanup, state prisoners who once labored along the side of the road under the watchful eyes of guards. A decade ago, NCDOT paid the state Department of Correction $11.3 million a year to clean up a total of 80,000 miles of road.
Prisoners too expensive
But Lee said prison closings and restrictions that kept prisoners from working near schools or businesses helped eat away at the number of miles of road they could clean. Between 2010 and 2016, state law required NCDOT to pay the correction department more than $9 million a year for trash cleanup, but the miles cleaned fell from nearly 77,000 to about 32,000.
“The General Assembly looked at that and realized that’s not a supportable option anymore,” Lee said.
Even paying prisoners $1 a day, contractors are more cost-effective, state officials say, in part because they don't have to remain clustered within sight of prison guards and can clean up more trash.
So while the NCDOT expects to spend about the same on trash cleanup this year as it has in the two previous ones – about $19 million – much more of that money is going to hire contractors to pick up litter, often just before the grass along the road is mowed.
I-40 a mess
Jimmy McHenry’s company, Dixie Lawn Service of Kings Mountain, has been mowing grass along North Carolina highways since 1986. He says NCDOT has upped its standards in recent years, requiring more frequent mowing and adding weed-eating and, for the first time, trash cleanup to its contracts. In the past, McHenry says, trash sometimes got picked up before the mowers went out, but often it didn’t.
“We wouldn’t blatantly run over trash bags, but smaller pieces of litter, they would get ground up,” he said. “We can coordinate the work a lot better if we’re doing both things.”
This year, Dixie Lawn Service got the contract to mow and clean up trash along major highways in the NCDOT division that includes Wake and Durham counties. Since early last month, a crew of about a dozen has been out five days a week picking up trash. Along with the usual litter, McHenry says, they find heating and air conditioning ducts, ladders and other construction materials that apparently fly out of trucks.
Debris from trucks make the roads that lead to landfills among the trashiest, says Lee of NCDOT. Other messy stretches are busy highways in urban areas with fast food restaurants along them — places such as I-40 through the Triangle.
“That’s one of our most difficult routes in the state, truly,” Lee said. “We have 12 cleanup cycles on some of that, and you really need 24 to keep it picked up.”
Lee said NCDOT cleanup contractors will make multiple passes along nearly all of the 1,340 miles of interstate highway in North Carolina and a little more than 60 percent of the nearly 13,800 miles of primary roads. But fewer than 10 percent of the 65,000 miles of secondary roads are covered by those contracts.
Volunteers through the Adopt-A-Highway program will get to some of those secondary roads. About 5,800 businesses, churches, police departments, PTAs and other civic groups take on two-mile stretches of road, picking up trash at least four times a year. Last year, Adopt-A-Highway volunteers covered more than 11,000 miles of road and collected about 967,000 pounds of trash (contractors and NCDOT employees collected nearly 5.6 million pounds).
In 2011, NCDOT launched another cleanup program that allowed businesses, organizations or individuals to pay one of two California companies to pick up along a stretch of road, in exchange for sponsorship signs with their names and logos. The Sponsor-A-Highway program began with 11 miles of I-40 and I-95 in 2012 and has since been expanded to highways statewide. Last year, sponsors paid the companies to clean up 281 miles of highway.
In the Triangle, Johnson Automotive, which has six car dealerships in Raleigh, Cary and Durham, has signed up to sponsor every available mile in the Triangle — 303 as of this month, including big stretches of I-40, I-85, I-540, I-440 and nearly all of U.S. 64 from Wendell to Apex.
Erick Kirks, Johnson Automotive’s marketing director, said employees had remarked about the trash problem to each other over the years, and the company began by sponsoring a couple of miles near its Lexus dealership off I-40 in Durham. He says the company will pay $727,200 in sponsorships this year to Adopt-A-Highway Litter Removal Service of America of Encinitas, Calif., which is supposed to clean each stretch of sponsored highway every four to six weeks.
Kirks takes I-540 between home in Cary and the Raleigh dealership and notices when it gets trashy.
“I’ve called them a couple of times and said, ‘Hey, I know you guys just cleaned a couple of weeks ago, but it’s really bad,’ and they’ll do an emergency cleaning,” he said.
'Hard violation to detect'
Of course, the real problem with litter on the highway is not the lack of efforts to clean it up but that it keeps winding up there in the first place.
Last year, police, sheriff's deputies, state troopers and other law enforcement officers issued 3,320 citations for littering or for failure to keep items from flying from the back of a truck. The charges led to 1,078 convictions.
Douglas Britton of Greenville used to write a lot of tickets for littering during his 33-year career as a state trooper, but he said that's because he had the benefit of an unmarked car. He remembers passing a car just as the driver tossed a half-full cup of soda out his window that splashed on Britton's windshield.
But most people who litter aren't going to do it in front of a law enforcement officer, making citations for littering relatively rare.
"That’s a very hard violation to detect," Britton said.
Britton, who retired in 1995, says he thinks the problem has gotten much worse over the years. He drives to Ahoskie several times a week and says he's appalled by what he sees along N.C. 11, including an old couch that's been out there, just south of the Roanoke River bridge, since September.
“There’s trash everywhere. I think they use the highway for a trash dump,” he said. “I don’t understand why they can’t carry the stuff home and put it in a can or something.”