Q: The litter along I-78 is absolutely disgusting. As soon as you come over the border from New Jersey into Pennsylvania it's nothing but trash all along the highway. It's bad enough seeing the deer carcasses; at least they decompose. I live along I-78, and some of the litter blows over the wall into my back yard. New Jersey has work-release people cleaning theirs up. Why can't Pennsylvania?
— Linnet Hill, Lower Saucon Township
Q: We have for years traveled back and forth from New York to Pennsylvania and have noticed the increase of trash on roadways starting almost at the border. I am sure that a large part of the problem in Pennsylvania is the lack of a deposit law for beverage bottles and cans. You seldom see roadside cans or bottles in New York as a result of the refundable deposit paid on all of them. It's too bad that our legislature has consistently refused to pass such a law.
— Dick Lampe, Hereford Township
A: Though it's a condition described by quite a few fellow warriors over the years, I've never really seen this dramatic increase in roadside litter the moment I cross from New Jersey into our fair state. Or from New York or Delaware or Maryland, for that matter.
I also get considerable email traffic denigrating the driving skills of Pennsylvania motorists compared with those in the state where the person previously resided. My reaction is, "How could it be that so many bad drivers somehow became concentrated in one place, while mostly skilled, courteous motorists settled elsewhere?" I think this sense arises mostly from anecdotal observations tainted by subjective recollections of how things were back home, so to speak. Not that Pennsylvanians are immune. Ever heard something along the lines of, "Look at that guy, driving like an idiot! (Notices the license plate.) Damn Jersey drivers!"?
I think that stuff's mostly without merit.
Linnet, inmates from some state prisons in Pennsylvania do clean up roadside litter — more than 1.2 million inmate hours' worth each year. "Obviously we're very strict on who can be released" for this kind of outside duty, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan Bensinger. It's mostly inmates nearing the end of their sentences. Mahanoy State Prison in Schuylkill County is among the participants, according to spokeswoman Jane Hinman.
Lehigh County Corrections Director Ed Sweeney said the county provided this service years ago, but it grew too expensive. "I can have one officer supervise 96 inmates in a housing unit" at the prison in Allentown, he said. "For a crew on the road, even a dozen guys chained together, you need at least three staff people" plus vehicles to transport people, equipment, trash bags and the like, Sweeney said. "The public seems to like the idea, but it's not the least bit cost-effective."
Some states probably do a better job of preventing litter, or of cleaning up litter, than others, and many conditions could affect the degree to which litter is visible: weather, topography, plant growth. Could there happen to be a higher percentage of litterbugs in some states than others? I don't know, but that sounds dubious, too.
I do wonder whether a larger proportion of the litter that seems to roll onto the roadsides this time year is appearing more suddenly because of the brutal winter. The massive snowbanks created by plowing to the roadsides were larger than usual, and were preserved by stubbornly low temperatures, thereby locking more trash and debris within for a longer period. Now that the icy mounds finally have vanished, we're left with the contents. This theory's probably not provable or disprovable, but it seems plausible to me.
I would vote for a deposit law too, Dick, and I'd jack up the stakes: How about $1 per beverage can or bottle? The nickel-and-dime (literally) deposits required by existing state laws amount to, well, nickel-and-dime stuff. A dollar a bottle would create cleaner roads, parks and properties of every kind.
Pennsylvania turned to mandatory recycling beginning in 1988, and that certainly beats the do-nothing option of tossing everything in the trash and dumping it all in a landfill. But hitched to recycling's bumper are fluctuating commodity market values, collection and administration costs, and heavy, diesel-spewing collection trucks wearing weekly on the roadways. With a $1 bounty — OK, even 50 cents if a buck scares off too many legislators — we'd have the tidiest roads in America.
Beverage sellers from Walmart to the local mini-mart will blow head gaskets in protest, complaining of administrative costs and logistical burdens — legitimate concerns, but as astute and talented business people, they'll find ways to adapt, or even benefit: "Warrior Mart pays $1.05 for each returned container! (Small print:) Minimum $25 purchase; 30-container limit; other restrictions apply. See manager for details."
Dollar deposit would create a powerful financial incentive for scarfing up every bit of what now qualifies as litter — except that few containers would be left to qualify. Nobody throws dollar bills out the car window, and suddenly, the same would apply to empty beer bottles.
The challenges would be considerable, but it could be done. It's being done in Massachusetts and some other states, though with the rock-bottom values. Think it's too risky? Impose a three-year sunset provision; if lawmakers aren't satisfied after that time, the program dies on its own.
A so-called bottle bill got serious consideration in Harrisburg as recently as 1997, but even that minimal 5-cent proposal, favored by farmers whose equipment and even livestock can be harmed by litter, faced opposing traffic from bottlers, glass manufacturers and retailers, who warned of job losses and increased costs for consumers.
I'm afraid a Keystone State deposit law of any kind is no more than a tailpipe dream, Dick, at least for now.
Meanwhile, many litter-collection efforts remain in gear. PennDOT still collects roadside litter using its own crews, and supports volunteer programs including its own Adopt-a-Highway, as well as Great American Cleanup Pennsylvania, which is underway.
Great American is held from March through May, with a particular focus on the Saturday following Earth Day, which just happens to be Saturday. The statistics are either impressive or disheartening, depending on the view through your windshield: They speak well of the volunteer spirit, and ill of the propensity for trashing the landscape in the first place.
According to Great American Cleanup Pennsylvania, the nonprofit that runs the statewide cleanup, since 2004 more than 1.5 million volunteers have collected 74 million pounds of litter and debris from 132,000 miles of roads, rivers and creeks, shore lines and trails. There's still time to sign up. For information, steer onto the Internet, or call PennDOT's local office at 610-871-4555 or -4556.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to email@example.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.