Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A tricky balancing act: Roadside litter and highway maintenance needs

We need everyone’s help in keeping our roadways clean – by securing loads, sharing the news or adopting a highway for cleanup

By Tina Werner

As the days become longer, spring is slowly beginning to show its telltale signs across the Pacific Northwest. And while we may be biased, it’s clear that Washington, with majestic mountains, rushing rivers, city lights and Pacific Ocean beaches, is one of the nation’s most gorgeous states.

Unfortunately, even with such stunning landscapes, people still choose to throw their leftover meals or abandoned mattresses on the side of our highways. Many of you have expressed concerns about the litter you are seeing along our highways, especially around this time of year. It saddens us as well, and we agree that litter greatly diminishes the natural beauty of our Evergreen State.

We spend more than $4 million annually to help clean our roadways but, sadly, even with such a large expenditure we’ve seen roadside trash increase for the past several years. In early spring it’s particularly noticeable because our recent work has focused on snow and ice removal and emergency repairs.

That’s why we need everyone’s help to keep our roadways clean.
Adopt-A-Highway volunteers pick up roadside litter alongside I-5 in the Seattle area.

Litter is a statewide problem

We get complaints about some state highways more than others, but roadside litter is a statewide problem.

In Seattle and Bellevue, I-5 is often where the most trash accumulates and where we get the most complaints. The high traffic amounts contribute to this, as do the growing homeless encampments in the area.

Further south, we see a lot of complaints about SR 410 in Bonney Lake. State Route 16 on both sides of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is another hotspot along with sections of I-5 near the Tacoma Mall.

We try to respond to litter complaints promptly, but other maintenance needs – such as guardrail or pothole repair, emergency bridge or road repairs or preventative maintenance – are higher priorities.

Simply put, limited state funds and a long maintenance “to do” list, means litter clean up often falls to the bottom of the list.

Partnerships are key to addressing roadside litter

So, where does our litter money go? In fiscal year 2018 our agency spent $4.4 million on litter and roadway clearing including:

  • Pick up and disposal of litter bags collected by groups or volunteers
  • Pick up and disposal of large debris, such as furniture, tires and dead animals
  • Payments to Department of Corrections work crews for litter pick up
  • Administration of the Adopt-A-Highway program

Our maintenance crews pick up litter as time and resources allow. Our crews also pick up bags that other groups – Adopt-A-Highway, Ecology Youth Corps, etc. – gather and leave on the side of a highway.

We know litter is a far-reaching concern. That is why we must work with our partners – local government, businesses, law enforcement and the public -- to help get the job done together.

This includes sharing clean up responsibilities and working to raise awareness to prevent litter from happening in the first place.

One easy way to do this is by properly covering and tying down your loads before you hit the road – even on “just short trips” through town. It not only helps prevent litter, it’s also the law. Please also spread the word to friends, family and neighbors. Preventing trash from reaching roadways is the best and simplest way to reduce roadside trash.

Department of Corrections crews

We have collaborated with the Department of Corrections for several years to assist with roadside litter and other cleanup efforts on state rights of way. Their work crews are an invaluable addition to our overall efforts. In addition to DOC crews, in some locations, local county jail crews are also used for site cleanups. While they are an important resource, it’s important to note that the work crews cannot solve our litter problem single-handedly.


We’re always looking for more people to join our Adopt-A-Highway program where volunteers or corporations help clean a set section of roadway.

We know the work is not glamorous, but it is invaluable and participants know they’re doing something tangible in their own backyard to help their community. (We provide supplies and safety training to interested groups).

In 2016, we had nearly 1,400 volunteers and 300 sponsored contractors assist in removing litter on state highways. This equates to more than 20,000 bags of litter picked up and disposed of by our maintenance crews with approximately 4,341 miles of highway adopted.
Pictured: Forks Elks Lodge #2524 and Forks Emblem Club #488 pick up litter
on their Adopt-A-Highway route along US 101 in Clallam County.

Volunteers from left to right: Glen King, Elbert Hampton, Gary Slyter and Bill Plumley.

Even with such valiant efforts, the litter remains. Currently, only one-third of our roads are adopted. You can learn more about our Adopt-A-Highway program and sign up to adopt a particular roadway online.

Applications for summer Ecology Youth Corps also are being accepted by our partners, with details available on the Ecology website.

We know our residents take our state’s beauty seriously – as they should. We hope that by working together, we can all make a difference and keep litter off our roads.


Unknown said...

Is so sad to see how much trash there is on our freeways Washington is a beautiful state and I hat to see this especially when summer is approaching and we have travelers from other states passing through and seeing this. Where does our tax money goes?

SV Kirkland said...

I too am terribly bothered by the amount of litter I'm seeing right now. It's such an eyesore for our community and I worry about the impacts on wildlife as well. I've called in my complaint (405, Kirkland area). I appreciate this blog post explaining funding issues. I'm hoping WSDOT will continue to look for creative solutions to litter cleanup and approach legislators to fund it. In the meantime I'm looking into adopting a section of highway.

WSDOT said...

We agree with you that litter diminishes the beauty of our beautiful state. Like we shared in the blog post, WSDOT spends nearly $4 million annually on litter, however even with such a large expenditure we’ve seen roadside trash increase over the years. Our maintenance crews pick up litter as time and resources allow. We try to respond to litter complaints promptly, but other maintenance needs – such as guardrail or pothole repair, emergency bridge or road repairs or preventative maintenance – are higher priorities.

We know litter is a far-reaching concern. That is why we must work with our partners – local government, businesses, law enforcement and the public -- to help get the job done together. This includes sharing clean up responsibilities and working to raise awareness to prevent litter from happening in the first place. More information about our Adopt-A-Highway program is available online.

Unknown said...

My personal experience from living in Kitsap County for 20 years is that a large amount of litter comes from the uncovered Waste Management trucks as they move about our roads picking up recycling and garbage. Perhaps the contracts that counties maintain with garbage/recycling companies need to be addressed?

Tim said...

I find the on and off ramps to be some of the worst - I-5/I-405 is very bad but nearly every on/off ramp seems to be an excuse for folks to empty their vehicle trash. Eastgate is very bad and even Issaquah. It's the medians as well as the sides.

WSDOT said...

WSDOT currently does not contract with local refuse companies to remove litter on state highways. We do however contract with both Department of Ecology and Department of Corrections like we mentioned in the blog post to clean up highways and remind all motorists to secure their loads before heading out to prevent further trash from falling out and littering our roads.

Unknown said...

Hey 410 and south 167 looks like crap ! Who is getting paid that is suppose to be cleaning this up ?

WSDOT said...

Thanks for your comments about SR 410 and SR 167 in Pierce County. Like we mentioned in our blog, we spend over $4 million annually on litter clean up and still the needs are greater. We need everyone’s help by not throwing garbage out of their vehicles, leaving abandoned mattresses on the sides of the highway and to secure their loads even on “quick trips.” WSDOT partners with Department of Ecology and Department of Corrections to assist with additional clean up efforts. You can learn more about our efforts and how you can make a difference at:

Tim said...

The issue of the trash companies is very real but I think most of this is coming from irresponsible passengers and drivers tossing out garbage and leaving unwanted items. In Seattle I make a point of picking up trash when I visit. However, there the city has stupidly removed hundreds of trash bins.

WSDOT said...

We appreciate you doing your part to be part of the solution. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I90 eastbound from Spokane is awful; by far worse than it has ever been. IT IS A FRIGGIN MESS. We are sick of too many of our tax dollars going to improve the west side ... why is there so much concern for a stupid straw and none for this trash. It is way past the time for WSDOT to hire people for cleanup. Where do out tax dollars go. IT IS A DAMN EMBARRASMENT!!

Arno said...

Driving from Everett to Oregon via I-5 on a regular basis, I must say that I-5 to the Oregon state line looks trashed compare to I-5 in Oregon. I see most of the trash flying out of pick up truck beds that have left over plastic bags, plastic cups, plastic bottles etc. in there that fly out. Oregon's so called "bottle law" helps a lot in the amount of litter along the highways and it is a day and night difference between here and Oregon.

Also when the WSDOT says it is too busy with snow and ice removal in the winter doesn't this come with sanding? Why is there almost no sweeping done on our highways, especially on and off ramps. We had several weeks now with nice weather and sand/gravel is still all over the place and I get hit by rocks daily. Why are these snow plow drivers not out on mass, as with a snow event, to sweep these roads. This is litter also in my view, created by WSDOT themselves.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see some action.

Tim said...

I agree with the last two posters and yes I think that WSDOT should be relying less on companies sponsoring roads and more on an official budget.

I can't comment on Spokane as I don't live there but I can certainly imagine the problem and sympathize with the priorities argument the poster.

On and off-ramps to freeways on the West side and medians are not problems and obviously some freeways are worse than others with the I5 through Seattle, the 405, and I90 being very bad. So too are the approaches into SeaTac. These are all priority roads and Yes, I would also include roads through Spokane based on what the poster above was saying.

Do folks actually open their windows and Chuck their stuff out or is it the Waste Companies? Any data on this?

WSDOT said...

Thank you for your comments. We certainly hope people are not simply chucking their leftovers out the windows, but most of the litter we have observed is from unsecured loads.

Tim said...

Thanks WSDOT, I should have edited my last post! On and off-ramps to our area highways and the medians ARE problem trash areas and I hate the deliberately placed bags, mattresses.

We need to recognize that trash begets more trash until it becomes almost an insurmountable problem by its very largeness. We do not want to get to that point which is why graffiti and trash patrols are essential to keeping our freeways clean.

I am now picking up at least one item of trash each time I visit Seattle and dedicate it to WSDOT's core mission of keeping roadways clean but I can't logistically get out of my car each time I see freeway trash and I don't think WSDOT wants us to.

Serena said...

I have noticed whatcom county is atrocious with litter along I-5 from Blaine to Bellingham. Also today I was driving West from Easton near Snoqualmie pass and there is so much litter! Like a load ripped open and spewed it all over the median. Please please please do something!

Troy said...

All I see is Seattle area complaints and a couple Spokane, but come down to Vancouver along I-205 at the newish Mill Plain Blvd exit (that mile long one) and it looks like it leads to the dump instead of this major street. It is embarrassing to me, and I would go out and collect it myself if I could.

Unknown said...

Hway 7 from 260th south is disgraceful. This is suppose to be our scenic highway to Mt. Rainer. The garbage along the roadside is unbelievable. I grew up on that highway & never have I ever seen it so bad. Being disabled I’m not able to help clean it up or I would. Please help. It breaks my heart to see it like that.

Tim said...

Yes, I am disabled too so am unable to pick as much up as I used to be able to. I have just posted a request for a cleanup of trash on the I-405 onramp from Rainier Avenue in Renton - someone has dumped there.

Many on and off-ramps continue to be problem areas for WSDOT cleanup and Ecology crews. What do you people do? Do they actually open their car doors and throw out their trash? Who does this? Makes no sense.

WSDOT said...

Tim, we certainly understand and feel your frustration. Thank you for doing your part and advising us about the issue. We're working closely with our partners to keep our roads clean - that includes on- and off-ramps.

Unknown said...

Would a new updated litter slogan help? You can use "Don't be bitter. Don't you litter". It has a nice unforgettable rhyme it.

Tim said...

I found a new hotspot recently - the Rainier Ave N. to I-90 Eastbound onramp. There is a huge detritus build up there. Sound Transit said recently that they were closing the onramp for some Link-related construction. I suggested that they perhaps take the opportunity to clean up the trash there, but got no reply so don't know if they took the suggestion or not.

As a personal philosophy and if I were a WSDOT cleanup manager, I would make sure that all I-5, I-90, I-405, SR-509, SR-599, SR-99, SR-16, SR-518 and SR-18 approaches into and out of Seattle, SeaTac, Bellevue, Tacoma, and Everett were cleared regularly and with the help of as many other agencies and their budgets as possible. In Russia, this would be "ridiculed" as a process of "Potemkining," but it has clear value to me because the Puget Sound is such a strong tourist magnet. It is worth the effort prioritizing the region as a result. I would say the same for many Eastern Washington cities such as Spokane, Yakima, Ellensburg, the Tri-Cities, and wine country. I have to visit some of these so cannot comment on their situation.

Although much of this might seem unreasonable and undoubtedly expensive, it can also be seen as a laudable objective to reach for with a will to achieve more funding. I don't know what "inspires" folks to dump their trash on the highways or when, but the rest of us who don't litter have to see the consequences of their decisions.

Mary La said...

As we entered I5 Southbound from the airport the on ramps were littered on both sides. This is obviously not an accumulation during the winter months.

Unknown said...

Highway 302 from Purdy Spit to Lake Kathryn Shopping Center is disgusting. Where is the online request form to have pick up services performed? Your website is merely a circular vehicle to dismiss pick up requests.

Get the prisoners out there doing something constructive for society, rather than just filling space in an institution and vegetating. When people do service for their society, they become better people. I understand we have an abundance of prisoners in this area (3 or 4 prisons?.

No more excuses!

Tim said...

In answer to Mary La above, I took have seen a lot of trash in the same area both northbound and southbound on the I-5 to the SR518 and I-405 freeways. The SR 599 to the SR99 is also bad and can be seen very visibly from Link's elevated portion.

The Airport footprint region should be a WSDOT priority area if not already as it is allows for folks to experience both "first" and "last" impressions of our beautiful area. Both need to be as immaculate as possible and free from unsightly graffiti.

Unknown said...

What would happen if I just went out and started picking up trash on the side of I 5 where I live?

Tim said...

To Unknown: I have often wondered this myself but I suspect the highway patrol would stop you/us very quickly. Cleanup events are probably scheduled and planned and not random.

As an update to my earlier post from December 9 above, it looks like some attempt has been made to clean up the SR518/I-405 and I-5 jct. on and off ramps. At least they are not as bad as usual in that area.

WSDOT said...

Unknown, While we appreciate your concern, safety is paramount. Anyone along the shoulder of I-5 generally prompts calls to 9-1-1 and a subsequent visit from the Washington State Patrol. We’d rather you consider our Adopt-a-highway program:

Tim said...


Is it possible for WSDOT to publish a list of problem areas that you want to clean up and have us donate to those assigned to clean up the areas? I think that this would help. At present, I have only ever seen a reporting line for graffiti and not for highway trash hotspots. I used to do "adopt a road" but my hip is so bad now that I can only be just an armchair reporter now.

The I-90 from Issaquah through Eastgate, the I-5 from Everett through to Tacoma, the I-405, the SR-18, and the SR-167 are all bad, but these are all obvious areas that need to be broken down into sectors for regular cleanup that maybe we can financially support?


Unknown said...

The litter around our state highways and interstates is getting out of control. The adopt a road program is a joke with some of the worst areas in places where a business "has adopted the road".

I am going to try to organize a boycott campaign against the companies that have adopted a road and that road is full of garbage, maybe if companies start pushing for enforcement in the adopt a road program something will get done.


WSDOT said...

Thanks for your comments. By law, WSDOT is required to have an Adopt-A-Highway program in place: RCW 47.40.100:

This also helps keep our roadways clean and save taxpayer dollars. Volunteer groups are required to pick up litter in their adopted sections a minimum of four times annually. Sponsored groups (i.e. businesses) typically hire a contractor to collect litter anywhere from two to six times annually.

Tim said...

The SR 522 around Woodinville I noticed on Sunday last is currently in a dreadful state - both on the median and on the hard shoulder areas of both sides of the freeway. The I-405 is bad as well in this same area.

The I-90 has junk, including a mattress I think between Issaquah and Eastgate. This section is often bad and things don't really let up much until the bridge deck leading on to Mercer Island.

I have notified King County Illegal Waste Disposal about the SR 522 area as an area of critical concern.

All we can do is publicize these areas and hope they get the cleanup attention they deserve.


WSDOT said...

Hi Tim! Thanks for your interest in our Adopt-A-Highway program. We have hundreds of state miles available for adoption and would love more support to help keep Washington beautiful. We would recommend you contact your local Adopt-A-Highway coordinator for your region and they can provide you with a list of local highways available for adoption, as well as equipment and bags to do so.

As you mention, litter is a far-reaching issue and not something WSDOT is equipped or funded to tackle alone. We appreciate our local community groups and partners who involve themselves in the Adopt-A-Highway program. We try to respond to litter complaints promptly, but other maintenance needs – such as guardrail or pothole repair, emergency bridge or road repairs or preventative maintenance – are higher priorities.

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