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The enormously high cost of litter in Ohio

We Americans love to travel. Whether it’s a cross-country trip or a poker run atop a motorcycle on a sunny Saturday, many of us love to take to the open road.

So why do we also dump our trash on roadsides, ruining the view for everyone?

I know I have written several times before about how much litter bothers me. Recently, though, I read an article about the monetary cost of litter in Ohio, and it reminded me what a complex problem it really is.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Ohio Department of Transportation collected 396,000 bags of roadside trash in 2018. That only includes debris found along routes for which ODOT is responsible, such as interstates and U.S. highways. It doesn’t count the massive amounts of trash strewn along county or township roads, or along municipal streets and alleys.

Filling those 396,000 bags took ODOT employees, inmate work crews and Adopt-a-Highway volunteers 157,000 hours, according to the Enquirer. That’s more than 19,000 work days.

It cost Ohio taxpayers $4.1 million.

That much time and money could have accomplished a lot for the people of the Buckeye State. Instead, it all went toward cleaning up someone else’s mess.

So, how many of those bags of garbage were collected locally?

In Belmont County, ODOT filled 6,835 bags with litter in 2018. Another 753 were filled in Harrison County and 695 in Jefferson.

Monroe appears to have been the cleanest Eastern Ohio county, as only 34 bags were filled there.

There are some obvious reasons for the disparities among our counties. I seriously doubt that Belmont County residents are sloppier than their neighbors, but there are considerably more residents in Belmont County than in Harrison or Monroe.

A larger population may account for the presence of more trash. But the more likely reason that Belmont County was heavily littered is that Interstate 70 runs right through it. That means that thousands of vehicles carrying people from our region and from all across the nation pass through the county every day.

As a result, highway workers find any number of items tossed out along the sides of the interstate and on its entrance and exit ramps. The article I read states that some of the refuse includes cigarette butts and cartons, plastic bottles, fast food wrappers, dirty diapers, used straws, chunks of styrofoam, purses that have been rifled through, drug needles and “trucker bombs,” which are soda bottles filled with urine.

In addition to such commonplace trash, workers often find discarded or lost furniture, bumpers and other car parts, refrigerators, toilets and more.

It’s really quite disgusting that people would rather fling such items out their vehicle window than take the simple step of finding a trash container at their next stop or using a proper restroom.

It’s also frustrating, because it is a never-ending cycle. Once an area is cleaned it doesn’t take long for trash to accumulate again.

I know from personal experience that people don’t hesitate to chuck garbage out their window even in an area that is freshly pristine. After I joined a group of villages in Belmont earlier this year to clean a section of John Street/Palmer Road, it was less than a day before I noticed a few pieces of litter had been deposited there again.

Can you imagine how the heaps of trash would pile up along our roadsides if crews did not risk their lives to go out and pick it up?

I will continue to participate in community efforts to combat and clean up litter, and I urge all of you to do the same. I also encourage you to share any creative ideas you might have to help stop littering. Write a letter to the editor or attend a community council meeting to help spread the word about the problem and any potential solutions you may come up with.

If you would like to volunteer to help clean debris from Ohio’s roads, ODOT welcomes your assistance. Visit transportation.ohio.gov/litter to learn more.

There you will find information about the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program and how you can get involved. The site also includes helpful links to other information about the state’s transportation system and about the Keep Ohio Beautiful program.

For a more local resource, check out jbgreenteam.org — the website of J.B. Green Team, which is the solid waste and recycling authorities for Jefferson and Belmont counties. It offers a lot of information as well as resources for cleanup projects, including gloves, safety vests, bags and more.

I know we can’t solve the entire state’s litter problem by visiting a website or even by helping to clean up a local road, but each one of us who gets involved sets an example that others may follow. That gives me hope for the future, which is something I don’t feel when I look at a litter-covered roadside.

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