CHOKEPOINTS

Why do 25% of people still litter in Washington state?

Jun 7, 2022, 6:11 AM
Trash and Litter...
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It might not be a law anymore, but the push to put garbage bags back in your car to control litter is back.

The law requiring litter bags in our cars was repealed in 2004. That’s something we found out a few weeks ago when talking about the on-going litter pickup on Highway 512 in Pierce County. But a good idea is a good idea, and the Washington Department of Ecology is handing out free bags at four Puget Sound Fred Meyer stores. In September, all Fred Meyer’s will carry them.

Sullivan: A glance at current Washington state laws to avoid littering on the road

“While it’s not a law, we are still encouraging people to get and use a litter bag,” said Amber Smith, who runs the “We Keep Washington Litter Free” campaign for the Department of Ecology.

It’s estimated that more than 12 million pounds of trash ends up on state roads each year, and if you think you’ve seen more litter lately, Smith says you have.

“We used to have a really active litter prevention campaign that ran in the early 2000’s, and during that time we did see less litter on the roadway,” she said. “That campaign was discontinued because of funding challenges. Over time, I think we have seen more litter on the roadway.”

Smith admitted that Covid had a lot to do with that. Cleanup crews just weren’t getting out there during the pandemic. Even with less people doing the work, ecology-funded programs did collect more than five million pounds of litter last year. Through the first four months of this year, workers have already removed 272,000 pounds of litter.

So why do people still toss things out of their cars?

“Those that admit to littering say they see so much litter on the roadway they don’t think their little bit is a big deal,” she said. “There is research, behavior science research, that shows that if areas are very littered they’re more likely to attract more litter.”

Smith estimated that 25% of the population still tosses stuff out of their cars, and that’s enough to generate the trash we see. “We do the best job we can, but there is no way that we can pick our way out of this problem,” she said. “We need everybody’s help to turn the tide on litter in Washington.”

An estimated 40% of the litter comes from things flying out of the backs of trucks or trailers. The unsecured load problem is significant. Two people have already died on Washington roads in crashes related to unsecured loads. “We see more than 300 traffic crashes a year and multiple fatalities and injuries,” Smith said. “All of this could be prevented by taking a few extra minutes to secure that load.”

State troopers will be looking for unsecured loads during emphasis patrols over the next three weekends. Troopers will be handing out information and issuing tickets for those in violation. The fines for littering and unsecured loads can run between $50 and $5,000, which include the penalties for tossing cigarette butts. You can also face jail time if something flies out of your car and causes an accident.

It’s estimated that one-third of loads are not properly secured on our roads.

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Why do 25% of people still litter in Washington state?