Q: Regarding your column a few years ago on the trashing of the Lehigh Valley, I started traveling Route 22 to visit the area weekly in the early '70s, and never noticed a significant amount of trash. As a permanent Valley resident, I'm now appalled by the amount of trash on our highways. My husband and I take time to clean up a beautiful country road near our home that is always being littered with beer and soda cans and bottles, cigarette boxes and fast-food containers. The amount of trash on our roads seems to correlate with the fact that we have many more convenience stores in our area — not the fault of the store owners, just an observation.
A: Are you certain the rising tide of debris on our streets and roadways can't be at least partly ascribed to retail business owners, Marie?
It's dangerous to paint road markings with too wide a brush, and surely most owners and managers of convenience stores and other retail businesses are responsible people. While most of the blame for litter lies with those actually who throw trash out the car window or simply onto the ground outdoors, I seem to have noticed a related problem: A shrinking number of public trash cans and receptacles on business properties.
As a regular customer at a small, thriving South Whitehall Township "strip center" — no storefront vacancies in many years — I noticed that only one business, a convenience store, provided outside trash cans. There were two bins, strategically located just outside the door, for many years. A few years ago, one vanished, and I quickly noticed a slight increase in the amount of litter there. The second receptacle eventually took the same route, with a similar boost in debris.
Why were the trash cans removed? The store owners said many people jammed the receptacles with trash generated elsewhere — from other businesses, or from customers' homes — even household garbage in the familiar 13-gallon or larger plastic bags found its way to the bins. Eventually, the receptacles would have to be emptied more often, and the disposal cost could rise.
In a way, I wasn't surprised to hear that people dumped their household trash into public receptacles: I've seen the same phenomenon in Allentown, which provides and maintains public bins on the sidewalks.
What I can't figure out is the reason for this practice.
Allentown provides twice-weekly residential curbside trash collection as a service covered by tax revenue; South Whitehall imposes a separate, mandatory trash fee for weekly collection. (Unfortunately, the normally progressive Bethlehem remains stuck in the rut of allowing trash collectors to contract directly with individual residents, a policy that can prompt this kind of behavior.)
Why would Allentown or South Whitehall residents throw trash in receptacles meant for retail-store customers when all their garbage gets collected from their homes at no extra cost, other than what they're required to pay as residents? It's easier to drag the bags to the curb than to take it to a public receptacle or to a business. Even old-fashioned laziness can't explain this phenomenon.
Whatever the bizarre cause of this behavior — if anyone has reasonable suggestions, please steer an email my way — I got to wondering why specified public trash receptacles aren't required by municipal zoning or planning regulations, health codes, or other provisions.
It might help control litter generally, and by connection on the roadways, to require public outdoor receptacles at businesses likely to generate litter — fast-food or other take-out food stores, convenience stores, drug stores (some customers open and toss packaging as they exit), and possibly others — certainly anywhere cigarettes or lottery tickets are sold.
Service businesses such as insurance or legal offices wouldn't seem to generate the kind of litter customers are likely to toss to the ground outside. Experienced planning or zoning professionals and their boards could sort through the details, but I don't think this idea drives too far off the road.
I do realize that this is a longshot proposal. I drove it by Bethlehem Planning Director Darlene Heller, who listened patiently but at the end of the road was, to put the best light on it, non-committal.
Since outside receptacles are not required, businesses that provide them do so, I presume, for customer convenience and to avoid unsightly properties that could hurt business. Today's supermarkets seem to generate a fair amount of trash, and to my experience, most provide bins.
The problem is, sometimes the bins aren't emptied when necessary. The receptacle in today's photo is a recent example from an area market — not the first overflowing bin I've seen at this and at other area markets and retail stores. I suspect that cost-control measures are behind the failure to provide receptacles, provide enough of them (they're too few and far between at many shopping centers) or to empty them in timely fashion.
Trash on smooth, level parking lots quickly can blow onto the streets that feed them, or onto nearby residential properties. Why shouldn't the property owners where the trash is generated be required to make reasonable efforts to keep it in check?
I've gotten more complaints than you can shake a dipstick at regarding unsightly roadside litter and debris over the years, and PennDOT spends an annual $1.5 million of our money cleaning the stuff up in six-county District 5 alone, a process supplemented by various volunteer programs.
Still, we seem to get no farther down the road to cleaner highways, Marie. Perhaps state or municipal mandates for public receptacles would get us off the starting line.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.