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Trash Talk

By Tom Richardson

“Am I the only one who notices?” That’s the question I often ask myself while driving around Massachusetts, whose roadsides are littered by an appalling amount of trash. While I know there are larger and more important issues facing our planet, the trash situation has become a major source of irritation because I’m confronted by it every day. Honestly, I have visited third world countries that had cleaner roadsides than we have here in the Bay State. I have sent emails to the governor, the media, and my state representatives, imploring them to do something, all the while wondering why there hasn’t been greater public outrage. Surely others are bothered by the disgraceful state of our roadways!

Therefore, you can imagine my joy when I learned via NPR that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had finally acknowledged the roadside trash problem, and vowed to launch a cleanup campaign for the state’s highways. One of Baker’s noteworthy comments: Our trashy roadways have become an eyesore, one that visitors to the Commonwealth often notice. (One reason for the trash accumulation has been a reduction in convict-staffed cleanup crews during the pandemic.)

But roadside trash is not confined to the interstate system. Millions of bottles, plastic bags, and food-packaging items litter the sides of our secondary roads and even residential streets. On my small, rural road alone, an annual cleanup of just 1.5 miles usually yields one or two 40-gallon bags full of trash. As you would guess, the majority of items are alcoholic beverage containers ranging from nip bottles (this year’s tally was around 50) to two-liter jugs.

Removing the trash would be a wonderful thing, but a bigger question remains: Where is it all coming from? I know from personal observation that a lot of lighter objects—coffee cups, plastic bags, soda bottles, fast-food containers, empty antifreeze jugs, fertilizer bags—are blown out of the beds of pickup trucks. On major highways, I see improperly tarped waste-transport trucks and (ironically) garbage trucks routinely spewing trash as they hurtle along.

But a lot of roadside trash comes from individuals who throw crap out of their vehicles. That people hold such disregard for the environment, or are simply too lazy to properly dispose of their trash, is inexpressibly sad and depressing. I’m sure that the problem feeds on itself; if people see trash along the roads, they figure it must be okay to toss unwanted items out the window too. Someone else will clean it up, right? I am sure that if our roadsides were spotless, fewer people would litter.

My feeling is that an aggressive public-education campaign is needed. Maybe it’s time to bring back the famous “Crying Indian” anti-litter campaign of the 1970’s (which turned out to be remarkably effective).

Meanwhile, if you want to participate in a community trash-removal program or donate money to the cause, I recommend visiting Keep Mass Beautiful, a nonprofit organization devoted to removing trash, promoting recycling and waste reduction, environmental education, and community beautification by working with local communities, government leaders, and the private sector.


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