I knew of course that there’s garbage all over the California highways. I see it lying in sweet repose by the side of the road every day, wondering how things like shoes make their way to the median across four lanes of traffic. I’ve swerved around boxes. I’ve waited in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances and other objects too large to swerve around. And I’ve seen the crews of convicts clearing the shoulders.
But until the New York Times pointed it out yesterday, I never suspected that there are people who devote their professional lives to the study of it. There are litter anthropologists (employed in universities) and litter analysts (employed in the waste industry). I can already envision the hilarity at cocktail parties when someone asks the inevitable question, “And what do YOU do?”
It turns out that California tops the nation in debris-related traffic deaths as well as in volume and oddity of items lost or tossed (including a live ostrich spilled on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005). The annual volume is estimated at 130,000 cubic yards, equivalent to a jam of garbage trucks 45 miles long. Pickup trucks are blamed as well as our general slovenliness.
This is not to suggest that highways in other parts of the country are spotless. Georgia highways on average yielded 2289 items of flotsam and jetsam per mile in a recent survey. The unintentional yield contains the mysterious category of “packages from food usually eaten at home,” easily my favorite. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say how long it had taken for this treasure to collect.