Covid News: During the pandemic, roadside trash piled up in Washington

One reader noticed more litter along Highway 522. Cleaning up is a team effort of state agencies, volunteers and inmates.

Barbara Rubalcava has driven on Highway 522 plenty.

She knows the beats along the highway that links her home in Monroe to Woodinville and beyond. The trees, the bridge over the Snohomish River and, lately, the roadside trash.

“The other day we traveled on Highway 522 from Monroe to Woodinville and could not believe the trash along both sides of the road,” Rubalcava wrote in an email to The Daily Herald. “Truly an eyesore!”

Rubalcava, 81, asked who was responsible for removing trash from the highway’s medians and shoulders.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is in charge of state roads, including Highway 522.

They and other state leaders, including at the Department of Ecology, know trash is scattered around highways. 

“The complaints from this winter were at an all-time high,” Ecology Northwest regional administrator Justin Boneau said in an email. “We all acknowledge that roadside litter is at historically high levels.”

The state Department of Ecology manages several programs for litter removal and prevention.

WSDOT doesn’t have dedicated litter crews. Other agencies and organizations partner with WSDOT to remove litter and work to keep it from getting there at all, a state spokesperson said in an email.

State workers have noticed the trash and an increase in roadside litter for several years.

“We share the public’s concern about this issue, which affects safety and diminishes the natural beauty of our state,” a WSDOT spokesperson said.

Roadside trash accrued more than normal during the pandemic because the state’s regular clean-up programs were halted. Most resumed earlier in March with three- or four-person crews and Ecology hopes to see roadside litter removed more this year.

Litter control amounts to $4.7 million a year statewide for WSDOT, but the work exceeds the budget. That means cleanups often are pushed down the priority list, below emergency repairs, maintenance, snow removal and vegetation management on WSDOT maintenance crews’ priorities.

The state crews clear debris, large items and roadkill from traffic, and collect and dump litter bags filled by Adopt-a-Highway, Ecology Youth Corps and Department of Corrections groups.

Adopt-a-Highway groups collect and bag the most trash from state highways, about 40% of the total, according to WSDOT. The state hopes that program rebounds this year as pandemic restrictions ease and weather improves.

While Adopt-a-Highway programs may stage a comeback, Rubalcava won’t be part of it.

“If I were 20 years younger, I’d be glad to help,” she wrote.

The Ecology Youth Corps handles about 25% so she doesn’t have to trudge along the highway with a bag, a grabber and a high-visibility vest.

About 20% of the trash is bagged by local and state corrections crews evenly. People in the state prison system can do it for restitution and community service.

WSDOT maintenance workers handle the rest.

Staff from the state’s corrections and transportation departments are meeting to discuss resuming work crews. Ecology has funding for more corrections crews to do litter control.

WSDOT is coordinating locations for Ecology Youth Corps, which could have more members this year.

Ecology’s “We Keep Washington Litter Free” education campaign is likely expanding as well. Keeping litter from the roadside is cheaper than removing it after it ends up there, Boneau said.

“Most littering is deliberate, and the unfortunate fact is too many residents/tourists/motorist, etc. are littering,” he said.

Ecology’s campaign and Washington State Patrol’s secure-load emphasis patrols can help reduce littering, Boneau said.

He said Ecology-led crews will bag Highway 522’s litter “as soon as possible.”

That should be a sight for Rubalcava’s sore eyes.

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