Roadside Litter Persists in Mass. What’s the Solution?

By NEIL RHEIN/ecoRI News contributor

Massachusetts has a litter problem along its roads and highways, and based on recent efforts to obtain information from the state Department of Transportation (DOT), there seems to be little reason to believe that circumstances will improve anytime soon.

Despite repeated e-mails to the address listed on the DOT’s Adopt-A-Highway website, ecoMass News was unable to get any kind of response. A call to the DOT’s main switchboard, however, finally yielded some details about the state’s litter clean-up efforts.

The DOT runs three volunteer programs that together removed about 98,000 bags of litter from Massachusetts highways and roadways last year, according to DOT spokesman Michael Verseckes. These programs include:

Sponsor-A-Highway. This program allows civic-minded companies to pay for crews from the Adopt A Highway Maintenance Corporation (AHMC) to clean up a 2-mile stretch of highway 24 times a year. AHMC is a for-profit company based in Santa Ana, Calif. Costs vary depending on the condition of the road and the volume of litter. The state allows sponsors to post signs to advertise their good deeds, including a separate, smaller panel with their corporate logo. The cost of these signs is included in the fee companies pay AHMC.

Adopt-A-Highway. This program relies on volunteer teams from nonprofit organizations to clean up litter along state roads. Each volunteer team adopts a 2-mile section of highway with the expectation that it will remove litter at least once a month between April 15 and Nov. 15. In this case, the state covers the cost of signs to recognize volunteer groups.

Adopt-A-Visibility Site. Similar to Adopt-A-Highway, this program encourages environmentally conscious school, business and community groups to beautify and maintain high-visibility areas and on-off ramps on state highways. In addition to litter clean up, this may include beautification projects and ongoing maintenance. Again, the state covers the cost of signs for nonprofits.

In addition to these volunteer programs, the state’s Inmate Labor Program relies on prison work crews to remove litter along highways and perform general cleaning and unskilled painting projects. According to the DOT, between 1,900 and 2,700 inmate crews venture out each year, depending on weather and availability. The state spends about $1 million annually on the Inmate Labor Program, mostly to cover the cost of transporting and supervising work crews. The total cost to the DOT for litter cleanups is unknown, as the state budget doesn’t include a separate line item for these efforts.

While the numerous Sponsor-A-Highway and Adopt-A-Highway signs along Massachusetts highways might lead drivers to conclude the state has the roadside litter situation under control, a closer look reveals a dirty and not-so-little secret.

It may be difficult to notice when traveling at a high rate of speed, but there is a serious mess along Massachusetts highways. Plastic water bottles, Styrofoam coffee cups and plastic bags decorate the landscape, along with fast-food containers, beer cans, loser lottery tickets and cigarette butts. During the summer, weeds and other vegetation obscure much of this mess from view. But during the winter, and especially in early spring after the snow melts, the full extent of the Massachusetts litter problem is on full display.

This begs the question: What is the state doing to attack the litter problem at its source — the people who thoughtlessly litter? The unfortunate answer appears to be nothing. Currently, the DOT has no program that educates the public about the cost of littering or attempts to change people’s behavior. This lack of education and awareness isn’t specific to Massachusetts, however.

Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s is more than likely to recall the “Crying Indian” public service announcements sponsored by Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council. These ads, along with other campaigns such as “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” helped inform a generation about the evils of litter and pollution. But those ads disappeared from the airwaves in the early 1980s. Unless their parents taught them well, a generation has since grown up without hearing the message that littering is unacceptable behavior.

Some states have taken a more proactive approach to litter prevention by partnering with Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit that focuses on community greening, litter prevention and removal, and waste reduction and recycling. For example, Texas has a well-publicized  “Don’t Mess With Texas” media campaign.

Texas, Georgia and many other states in the South and Midwest also have established statewide Keep America Beautiful (KAB) affiliates that focus on the litter problem. Numerous county, city and town affiliates also participate in the effort. In Massachusetts, only two KAB affiliates — Springfield and Mansfield — exist in the entire state.

While education is one way to address the problem in Massachusetts, enforcement of existing anti-littering laws is another. Despite stiff penalties for littering within “20 yards of a public highway, or on any other public land, or in or upon coastal or inland waters,” actual citations for littering are a rare occurrence in Massachusetts. Efforts by ecoMass News to get an actual number of citations issued by the State Police were unsuccessful.