TERRE HAUTE —
A first-of-its-kind, coast-to-coast project to remove litter from U.S. roadsides brought the Pick Up America crew through the Wabash Valley two years ago.
These folks saw lots of trash. Riding a bus, the team of six full-time volunteers and three interns spent three years picking up litter. They started in March 2010 in Maryland and finished last November in California. The Pick Up Artists, as they called themselves, reached the Wabash Valley in May 2011.
With the arrival of Earth Day on Monday, look out the window of your car or truck and ask yourself a few questions. Does this community look clean to visitors? What types of litter is the most common? Would a prospective resident or employer touring the streets and roadways get the impression that we take pride in the community?
The struggle to keep both urban and rural areas clean goes on all across the country. It is costly. The cumulative annual bill for litter prevention and eradication was estimated at $11.5 billion in a 2009 study commissioned by Keep America Beautiful. Those costs fall onto the hard-hit budgets of states ($362 million), counties ($185 million), cities ($797 million), businesses ($9.1 billion), educational institutions ($240 million), nonprofit agencies ($677 million) and volunteer groups ($92 million). That’s a lot of money to fix a problem created by carelessness and negligence.
The impact of illegally tossed trash varies from region to region. The impressions of a well-traveled visitor are especially helpful in assessing the situation here. Greg Katski, now working in Missouri, served on the Pick Up America crew, handling the public relations duties. Reached last week by email, we asked his view of the roadside litter Pick Up America encountered in Indiana and the Midwest.
“It seemed that the poorer the community was, the more litter we picked up,” Katski wrote. “I would attribute this to a lack of education, heightened drug use, and a general lack of empathy towards litter. In other words, people that are struggling just to get by have more ‘important’ things to worry about than litter. Of course, what people don’t realize is that when you litter, it affects your environment in a lot of not-so-obvious ways: plastic and Styrofoam leeching into the water supply, for instance.”
What did they find? “In Indiana, especially near the Indiana/Illinois border [near Vincennes], we found a lot of Styrofoam, beer cans and bottles and drug paraphernalia,” Katski stated.
Remedies are not simple. A stiffening of littering and dumping laws, and stricter enforcement, would help, but state funding cuts make it difficult for local law enforcement agencies to expand their efforts. Thus, if a community can’t deter the litterers, it has only two options — let the trash accumulate, or clean it up. The city of Terre Haute organized crews of inmate volunteers from the Federal Correctional Complex to pick up garbage tossed along public streets, alleys and tree rows, and that successful program is now in its second year. Other church, civic and college groups participate in state and county Adopt-a-Road efforts.
They can’t do it alone, though.
As proven by the Pick Up America project, which collected 180,000 tons of trash over 3,500 miles of U.S. roadways, the prescription for litter amounts to rolling up your sleeves. “The best thing to do is grab some gloves, trash-pickers and trash bags, get some friends and family together and start cleaning up,” Katski said. “Someone has to do the dirty work.”