WA state highways are trashed. Don’t expect the litter to be cleaned up any time soon

The state’s highways are looking like drive-thru trash heaps, and it’s unlikely to get better until cleanup programs mothballed by the COVID-19 pandemic can be restarted.

Careless drivers, unsecured loads and garbage spilling from roadside homeless encampments are the leading causes of the unsightly mess along Washington’s roads, according to those charged with preventing and cleaning it up.

“Roads don’t litter themselves,” said Steve Williams who leads the state Department of Ecology’s war on litter in the Northwest region.

The pandemic has shut down two of the state’s most visible litter programs: Adopt-a-Highway program and Ecology Youth crews. It’s also hobbled adult litter pickup programs and state Department of Corrections crews.

Combined with a moribund litter prevention campaign and scattered enforcement, roadsides across the state are littered with a variety of discarded items both familiar and new to the COVID-19 era.

The pandemic has created a type of garbage seldom seen before 2020: discarded personal protection equipment (PPE). Masks and gloves now litter ditches, gutters and parking lots.

“In 10 years, they’ve never picked up a face mask, and now they pick them up all day long,” Williams said of his litter pickup crews.

Trash-tossing drivers and passengers account for a large portion of roadway garbage, but another major source is unsecured loads, according to those who monitor the state’s roadside refuse. Those sources include pickups carrying trash cans without lids, trucks without tarps and construction vehicles losing their cargo.

Occasionally, deliberate trash dumping can leave furniture, old appliances and debris along the roads, but that’s mostly a problem in county jurisdictions and federal property like U.S. Forest Service lands and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said those charged with enforcement.

Whatever and wherever it is, trash is a wholly human-made problem, and now is trash season in Washington when clean-up is minimal, winds pile up debris and springtime leaves and grasses can’t hind the eyesore.

“This is the time of the year when we really start to see it,” said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Cara Mitchell.

While most of the trash visible from the state’s highways is in WSDOT’s right-of-ways, the agency doesn’t have funding for its removal.

“What is the most important thing to take care of on our highways?” Mitchell asks. “Potholes, guardrails, signals, striping ...”

While WSDOT does provide crews to pick up litter bags and large items, other state agencies and volunteers do most of the actual cleanup.

“Everybody has a stake in this,” Mitchell said. “We need the public’s help in keeping the state’s highways clean.”


In Tacoma’s Nalley Valley, burned lumber, barrels and other debris were in a slow-motion tumble down steep slopes in late February. Above, tents and wooden structures provided shelter for people living underneath freeway abutments covered with graffiti.

Between nearby Sprague Avenue and the I-5 exit for South 38th Street, a dozen hypodermic needles were scattered among bottles filled with what appeared to be urine. A few feet away and near an auto dealership sat a mattress, abandoned on city right of way.

It’s hard to tell what was left behind by illegal dumpers, passing vehicles and those living in make-do shelters. The area is unsightly at best and dangerous at worst.

Mitchell said it is not WSDOT’s policy to displace homeless people without cause. The agency is charged with the building and maintenance of the state’s transportation system. It has long worked with cities, social services and law enforcement to maintain access to bridges and highways.

“With the pandemic, we don’t want to shift people living in homeless situations unnecessarily,” Mitchell said. “Our priority is taking care of the highway.”

Pandemic precautions have made cleanup more difficult and time-consuming, she said. Cleaning up near homeless encampments can be dangerous.

“Not all groups will pick up that kind of material because of the sharps and the feces and other things that are a little bit more of a health hazards,” said the Department of Ecology’s Amber Smith.


There are few driving experiences more satisfying than seeing a small mountain of bulging white trash bags labeled “Ecology Youth Corps” waiting for pickup along a section of newly cleaned highway.

The bags would sit for a day or two to remind the trash-tossing public that what goes out the window will be picked back up — at taxpayer expense.

But don’t look for them or the young men and women who fill them in 2021. As in 2020, the program has been suspended, according to Dave Bennett, a Department of Ecology spokesman.

The reliable summer job program was not feasible in 2020 or this year due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, Bennett said. Some 3,500 youth would apply annually for 300 jobs, Williams said.

“This is a really good program for kids,” he said. “It teaches them a work ethic, Monday through Friday, getting out there in the hot sun.”

Until 2019, the minimum-wage jobs would keep 25-30 crews busy in July and August. The Ecology Department expects to have the program back in place in 2022.

Adult litter crews resumed working this month, and I-5 drivers should see them anytime.

“Those crews will be busy,” Bennett said. But they won’t nearly be enough. “It is impossible to keep up with litter pickup.”

Williams said pandemic restrictions mean fewer people can ride in the vans that transport the workers to cleanup sites.

“We can’t have more than two people in a truck, three people in a van (including the driver),” he said. “We’re still under the social distancing limitations, even if we could hire more people.”

If restrictions ease by summer, DOE might be able to hire more workers, Williams said.


Along with tire re-treads, fast-food wrappers, coffee cups and cigarette butts, PPE is piling up in astonishing amounts, according to Bennett and Williams.

“It’ll absorb the water and go to the bottom of whatever liquid pool it’s in,” Bennett said of cloth and paper masks.

What item do crews spend the most time picking up? Cigarette butts.

Then there are the hypodermic needles.

“We fill up 3-gallon biohazard bins with hypodermic needles,” Williams said.

Beer and liquor bottles are a popular item to ditch from moving vehicles, he said.

“Drugs, guns ... we found a loaded a .38, bullet in the chamber,” he said.

Williams said the busiest roads collect the most trash, but drivers in rural areas litter more than city travelers.


While multiple federal, state and local agencies have programs, budgets and employees in place to combat litter, it’s clearly not enough.

In Washington state, the Department of Ecology bears the brunt of cleaning up the state’s roadsides, but it’s also responsible for clearing illegal dumps, cleaning meth labs, mopping up oil spills and oversees the cleanup at the Hanford site in Central Washington.

Cleanup along the state’s highways and interstates is funded by the state litter tax. The half-century-old tax is paid by the distributors of the very products that might end up discarded along roads: tobacco products, beverages, paper products and a dozen others.

The tax has raised $26.8 million so far in the 2019-2021 biennium (ending June 30). In the 2017-2019 biennium, it raised $24.8 million.

“It’s doing really well right now because of the amount of take-out and grocery shopping folks are doing,” said Ecology’s Laurie Davies. “We’ve become a much more disposable society.”

The tax authorizes the Ecology Department to spend:

▪ 40% on prevention and litter pickup through the Ecology Youth Corps and other state programs.

▪ 40% on waste-reduction and recycling efforts.

▪ 20% on grants to local governments for their litter-fighting efforts.

Beginning in 2008, half of the funds was diverted to state parks to fill holes in that agency’s budget.

“It became difficult for us to fund the litter-prevention campaign,” Davies said.

Funding to the Department of Ecology was fully restored in 2019.


Although the state abandoned its “Litter and it will hurt” anti-litter campaign in 2009, enforcement still plays a role as a trash determent. But how much?

Statistics provided to The News Tribune by the Washington State Patrol show 104 littering-related contacts were made with drivers in 2020 in Pierce and Thurston counties. Some 24 citations were issued.

Discarding a cigarette or other lighted material from a vehicle is by far the most expensive fine: $1,025. A bottle or other trash will cost the tosser $139.

“I most always stop a car if I see trash come flying out of the window or even the back of the bed,” said Trooper Ryan Burke. “Many of us do. Especially the cigarettes. Even in winter.”

Burke says he’s trying to break bad habits before fire season starts in the summer.

For years, the state mandated that every vehicle carry a trash bag. That law is no longer in place, Burke said.


While others in state government focus on what do with trash as it rots or floats alongside the state’s roads, Amber Smith’s job is to keep it from ever leaving a car or truck.

Smith is the litter prevention coordinator for the Department of Ecology. She is focused on a new public awareness campaign, the state’s first in more than a decade. She’s also a former Ecology Youth Corps member.

Smith started her job a few months before the pandemic hit and after the state Legislature restored funding for litter prevention following a 10-year hiatus.

The previous campaign, “Litter and it will hurt,” which ran 2002-2009 took some flack for being penalty-focused. The new campaign will take a gentler approach, Smith said.

The $700,000 budget will allow hiring of consultants and marketing contractors, purchase advertising and build a toolkit for local jurisdictions, Smith said. If approved by the Legislature, funding could be extended another two years.

The last campaign saw a 25% reduction in litter during it’s first two years, Smith said. She’s hoping for a similar reduction this year.

The public should start seeing the new campaign, focusing on unsecured loads, in spring, Smith said.

“Those unsecured vehicle loads are a real priority for our law enforcement partners, the Traffic Safety Commission and a lot of our jurisdictions,” Smith said. “Then we’ll add additional littering behaviors that could be around cigarette butts, because they’re also a safety issue around wildfires in the summer.”

Wildfires aren’t the only hazard cigarettes bring to the environment, Smith said. The filters contain hazardous chemicals that leach into soil and water.

“When you start looking at the millions of cigarette butts along the roadside, they really are an environmental concern, as well as a fire hazard in the summer,” she said.

They also have a tendency to get missed by litter crews.

“They’re tough to pick up,” Smith said. “When we’re hand picking litter roadside, to get every little cigarette butt takes a lot of work.”

Smith, who has researched the history of Washington’s war on trash, said the nature of garbage has changed over the past two decades. There’s more plastic, more vaping materials, more syringes.

And then there are the “urine bombs” — those liquid-filled bottles tossed from trucks and other vehicles by drivers who don’t have the time or the stamina to stop at a roadside rest area to relieve themselves.

“Our litter crews still pick up bottles of urine all the time,” Smith said.

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.