Adopt Highway Willmar_May2016

A group of people clean a highway ditch in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation)

We’ve all seen it, whether it’s a plastic bag tumbling across the road or someone flicking a cigarette out the window, it’s on nearly every highway -- litter. While the snow may be covering the majority of the problem, Minnesota officials are calling on residents to help solve the dilemma now.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is hosting online meetings for individuals, businesses and organizations to talk about litter issues within their district. MnDOT began a Litter Study in 2020 for the first time in 30 years to better understand the impacts of litter on U.S., state and interstate highways.

According to Jessica Oh, Highway Sponsorship Program director at MnDOT’s Office of Land Management, litter is a significant issue. Around one-third of complaints the public makes to the department's service email and phone number relate to maintenance or aesthetic issues.

“Our impression is that the public takes the issue very seriously,” Oh said.

Oh leads the state’s Highway Sponsorship Program, which was created in 2018 to encourage people to enhance and maintain trunk highways. Some of the partnerships involve pollinator projects, landscaping projects or removing invasive species.

“It's really intended to help MnDOT form public-private partnerships to enhance and care for the right of way,” Oh said.

Litter costs taxpayers thousands of dollars, negatively impacts the environment and decreases an area’s scenic beauty, thus potentially reducing the local economy. The 2020 Litter Study will help MnDOT determine the scope of the problem today and look for strategies to prevent litter. The study is set to wrap up by this summer with the goal of releasing the report sometime in the fall.

As part of the study Oh and her team want to understand how Minnesotans feel about the aesthetics of MnDOT system and get a glimpse at the public’s perception on litter, thus the upcoming online stakeholders meetings. In conjunction with the meetings, MnDOT plans to complete 15 litter site counts throughout the state to determine how bad the littering is in the state and the composition of the litter. These sites will range in environment, with some in a rural setting and others in an urban landscape. The last litter survey was conducted in 1990, Oh said.

“In 30 years, a lot changes in our environmental vision of the environmental integrity of the highway roadsides,” Oh said. “What will be really interesting is comparing and contrasting how that's changed in the last 30 years.”

About a quarter of the litter found on highway right of ways in 1990 was fast food packaging. Around 10% of the litter was considered micro litter, such as cigarette butts and small pieces of paper. Oh wonders if today’s litter will be similar to litter of the past. Once site counts are complete, Oh says the department hopes to implement prevention strategies to address specific issues.

“The issue of litter changes over time from the issues of illegal dumping, and the complexities of that to encampment waste with unsheltered people, that's changed. Waste and regulated materials such as syringes and the rest in the right of way, it's changed over time, and I think we take those critical hazards much more seriously then we did, so the approach to litter has evolved,” Oh said.

One litter intervention strategy is the well known MnDOT Adopt a Highway program. Oh says the state is trying to determine other strategies to address the trash issue, as litter on the roads can travel into other ecologically significant areas and waterways, impacting the environment and recreation such as fishing. Oh said the department takes the issue seriously, but admits MnDOT doesn’t have enough capacity to send their employees out to pick up litter.

“Our maintenance staff, we want those folks focused on those critical repairs that are focused on critical safety for the traveling public,” Oh said. “We'd rather have them repairing a guardrail that saves lives rather than picking up litter.”

Looking for the public’s help

Each MnDOT district has its own coordinator and residents who are interested in participating in Adopt a Highway program should contact their local coordinator. Coordinators will know which highway segments are adoptable and communicate program requirements. More information about the program can also be found at www.dot.state.mn.us/adopt/.

Attendees of the online stakeholder meetings can expect to discuss litter hotspots within the MnDOT system and their concerns related to the issue. Oh hopes to determine some similar characteristics that may be influencing the problem between these hotspots.

“We hope to understand and hear from business owners and hear from municipalities on what is the impact of litter on their organization or their business,” Oh said. “There is some interesting research with Keep America Beautiful on the economic impact of litter and that it really can lessen positive views of a community, in terms of its economic strength.”

Even if unable to attend or participate in the MnDOT programs, Oh suggests that it’s still possible to play a positive role in the effort to reduce littering. She points out that sometimes littering can be accidental, so things like securing your load in a pickup truck can make a difference. Removing empty wrappers and beverage containers from your vehicle before they even have the chance to fly out the window or the truck bed is another proactive approach. Quite simply dispose of your waste properly.

The online stakeholder meetings will kick off soon followed by the litter counts after the snow melts.

“We are excited to see the results of this and see how we can address the issue in a more holistic way,” Oh said.

Reach reporter Ashley Rezachek at 507-444-2376. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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