‘Marred by litter’: Millions of pounds of trash soil Washington roads and state lands

Litter is seen alongside an Interstate 5 off-ramp near Lacey, Washington. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Washington has a litter problem.

Nearly 38 million pounds of garbage and other debris were strewn across roads, rest areas and state lands last year, according to a new Department of Ecology-commissioned study. That’s nearly 5 pounds per resident annually.

The bulk of the waste – about 26 million pounds – is found on roads and highway interchanges, the report says. Another 10.6 million pounds sullies state and county parks.

More than 8,000 pieces of trash, including cigarette butts, food wrappers, snack bags and glass bottles, peppered each mile of the state’s roadways last spring. That’s well above a national average of about 5,700 pieces per mile presented in a different report.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the most beautiful state in the country marred by litter,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.

‘Not just unsightly’

The overall amount of litter in the last two decades is down, though trash at highway interchanges is up compared to the last two statewide studies conducted in 1999 and 2004. Cigarette butts made up a greater percentage of litter last year, compared to 1999.

The study sampled 182 sites, including roadways, interchanges, rest stops, parks and Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife lands across the state. It did not count litter associated with homeless encampments.

In total, the Department of Ecology and the Department of Transportation spent around $12 million last year to clean up an estimated 7.4 million pounds of litter, according to the study. But that is still less than one-fifth of the trash that accumulates each year.

About half of the trash came from people intentionally littering, such as throwing something outside their window while driving. About 39% of the litter came from unsecured loads, and the remaining 13% came from vehicle and tire debris.

“We acknowledge that roadside litter is not just unsightly but also poses serious safety concerns to travelers – including roadside workers and people who walk, bike and roll,” Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said in a statement.

Revisiting the litter tax and other proposals

The study includes a number of proposals for possible future legislation to help reduce litter.

One option is to reconsider the rate of the state litter tax and what items it covers. Currently, the 0.015% tax charges manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers on certain products, including cigarettes, beer, newspapers and plastic.

The litter tax rate is based on the cost of litter cleanup efforts in 1970, but in 2022, the revenue from the tax only covers less than one-fifth of the estimated litter each year. In the most recent study, about a quarter of the pieces of litter that accumulated were not covered by the tax.

Ecology also said they can use the study to evaluate the effects of recent legislation to ban single-use items, such as plastic carryout bags and service-ware, and determine if more restrictions on single-use items are necessary.

The study also mentions a number of other solutions to reduce litter, including adopting a beverage container deposit-return law, installing more public ashtrays and requiring towing companies to remove all vehicle debris from accidents.

by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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