Of course garbage is everywhere, including the highways, and we all know it. I’ve seen all sorts of things reposing by the side of the road. I’ve swerved to avoid it: packing crates, boxes, tires and less identifiable debris. I’ve been in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances. I hear about even more debris on the local highways on the radio, as a fair number of the traffic updates mention such things as garbage cans rolling in the freeways, parts of the loads carried by trucks lolling on the roads, and vehicle parts with attachment disorders, sadly separated, probably forever, from their proper places in life.
But it never occurred to me that there are people who study and quantify all this garbage for a living–it and nothing else. It took an article in the New York Times to open up my eyes to the truth. 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.
Check out the New York Times graphic, showing a typical mile of litter.