If you think you’ve been seeing more roadside trash lately, it’s not just you. Several residents have reported seeing more litter lining Monterey’s roadways in recent months.
And local government officials are aware of the problem. In fact, they say it was a growing, expensive problem even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 safety measures have just exacerbated it.
“We’ve heard a lot of complaints about those areas where people are seeing that starting to get out of control,” said Ted Terrasas, sustainability coordinator for the City of Monterey.
It’s not that littering has increased during the pandemic some officials say. One of the factors is there are fewer people available to clean it up.
Monterey County Public Works Maintenance Manager Shawn Atkins says before COVID, the county relied on people working off community service hours for much of their roadside litter cleanup. Once the pandemic hit, it wasn’t feasible to keep the crews socially distanced and to properly sanitize the PPE workers wore to keep them safe on the road, so they had to suspend the program.
“We went from having a litter crew of six to eight people daily down to just one litter guard picking up the litter,” said Atkins.
“So, the litter stayed in the environment for much longer—months longer, in some cases, than normal.”
Litter was a problem long before COVID
As long-time residents know, keeping up with litter on Monterey’s roadways was a challenge even before COVID. Atkins said his cleanup crew was so busy just cleaning up from illegal dumpsites, they didn’t have time to walk the shoulders of their roads picking up loose trash.
“Even then, oftentimes, there was a two week to a month backlog of dump sites,” said Atkins.
Atkins described situations where his workers would spend hours cleaning up a dump site, leave for lunch, and then come back to see that the same site had already been dumped in again.
“The volume has always been that we couldn’t keep up with the workload—and COVID just put that off the chart,” he said.
Caltrans, which has stewardship for keeping state highways clean, has been faced with the same problem said Kevin Drabinski, public information officer for Caltrans District 5. District 5 oversees Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
Although Drabinski said it was frustrating to see how quickly litter accumulates in a newly cleaned site, “We just continue to plug away, believing that’s the remedy for the situation,” he said.
Picking up litter is expensive
Managing roadside litter is just one of the many maintenance duties Caltrans takes care of, including fixing and installing guardrails, filling potholes and trimming trees. Drabinski said it’s important to Caltrans that they manage litter, not just because it looks bad, but also because of safety and environmental concerns. But that effort doesn’t come without a cost.
Statewide, Drabinski said Caltrans spends $50 million annually on litter cleanup.
“Those tens of millions of dollars that we spend statewide on litter pickup,” he said, “we’d be happy to devote those to other worthwhile areas.”
Cleaning up illegal dumpsites is also extremely costly, and not just because of hauling out bulky items like mattresses and furniture. Atkins said within the last five years he’s seen a substantial increase [SM1] in complex hazardous materials — meaning dangerous and often unidentified chemicals — dumped along roadways.
According to Atkins, any unidentified chemicals have to be lab-tested before the county can proceed with cleanup, which can cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. If any of the chemicals have leached out into the environment, there’s an additional cost to remediating the site.
“A lot of places will take small volumes of household paints, motor oils, the universal stuff,” said Atkins. To safely dispose of other chemicals, businesses or individuals need to contact a hazardous waste hauler.
According to Drabinski, because cleaning up litter is one of the more visible aspects of what Caltrans does, “when litter appears on the highway, people think of us.”
But he says it all comes back to a community taking pride in where they live. Terrasas, Drabinski and Atkins all mentioned how city, state and county agencies have to work together to try to keep the litter problem under control.
“It’s that network coming together to give the feeling of a vibrant, healthy community,” said Drabinski.
Atkins said the county has awarded a contract to a local vendor to start picking up roadside litter and cleaning up dumpsites in the near future.
In the meantime, the increased litter may still be upsetting to many. But there are ways to help.
Residents can get involved by reporting illegal dumping, properly disposing of their chemical waste, tying down loads, and refraining from dumping and littering. The county’s health department’s website has more information on how to report illegal dumping and properly dispose of waste.
Residents can also participate in cleanup efforts. Monterey County has an Adopt-a-Roadway program where residents can be active members of their communities by regularly picking up litter on a given stretch of road, said Atkins.
“We’re always welcoming people that are looking to volunteer,” he said.
Caltrans also has an Adopt-a-Highway Program.
Drabinski hopes that cleaner highways will create an effect where people will be discouraged from littering in the first place.
“Hopefully the areas of highway that we can keep clean will be an encouragement for people to continue to keep them clean,” he said.
Contributed by local news sources