I’m sure you could find plenty of things to do with $65 million.
I’m sure we all as a society could find plenty of things to do with $65 million, particularly as the coronavirus and its accompanying economic dislocation eats away at state and local budgets.
And $65 million is what the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) spent from 2014 to 2018 removing litter and other debris from highway rights-of-way across the commonwealth.
Maybe that tear Iron Eyes Cody shed in the anti-littering ad that was a TV mainstay in the 1970s wasn’t solely because the environment was being defiled by hordes of heedless slobs – maybe he also realized the manpower and money it takes to clean it all up.
The dollars-and-cents consequences of litter in Pennsylvania were outlined in a report released shortly before the coronavirus hijacked every part of our lives. The study was done in a partnership between the state’s departments of transportation and environmental protection and the advocacy group Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. They hope to use the information, presumably when we are not preoccupied with pandemic concerns, as the groundwork for a plan to reduce and eliminate litter across the commonwealth.
It’s not unknown for visitors to Pennsylvania to remark on how much litter is strewn in our public places and along our roads compared to the places they live. Patrick McDonnell, the environmental protection secretary, said that “Pennsylvania has a littering problem that cleanup efforts alone can’t solve. Litter undercuts our quality of life and the health of our water and soil. It shortchanges community improvements and economic development as funds that could otherwise be spent more productively instead go to trash cleanup.”
How bad is litter in Pennsylvania? In a task comparable to counting the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” volunteers walked along select roads tallying the cigarette butts, plastic wrappers and other detritus they found. The study estimates there is about 2,000 pieces of trash for every mile of road in Pennsylvania. That adds up to about 500 million pieces of trash along our roads.
And it’s not just PennDOT that has to pony up to keep the litter from piling up. Cities in Pennsylvania have been spending a combined $68 million per year on cleaning up litter, with not-that-big metropolitan areas like Lancaster and Reading each spending $1 million per year.
Perhaps litter is an inevitable byproduct of a developed society that places a premium on speed and convenience. Maybe there aren’t enough visible, readily available containers for us to throw our unwanted items away. Maybe some people don’t care or view throwing a soda can out the car window as a transgressive act. But no matter the circumstances, litter hits us all in the wallet.
In the weeks since the coronavirus lockdowns started, many people haven’t ventured far from their homes and have used their vehicles infrequently, so it stands to reason that the amount of litter fouling our public spaces has decreased. Let’s keep it that way once this is over.