‘Marred by litter’: Millions of pounds of trash soil Washington roads and state lands

Litter is seen alongside an Interstate 5 off-ramp near Lacey, Washington. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Washington has a litter problem.

Nearly 38 million pounds of garbage and other debris were strewn across roads, rest areas and state lands last year, according to a new Department of Ecology-commissioned study. That’s nearly 5 pounds per resident annually.

The bulk of the waste – about 26 million pounds – is found on roads and highway interchanges, the report says. Another 10.6 million pounds sullies state and county parks.

More than 8,000 pieces of trash, including cigarette butts, food wrappers, snack bags and glass bottles, peppered each mile of the state’s roadways last spring. That’s well above a national average of about 5,700 pieces per mile presented in a different report.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the most beautiful state in the country marred by litter,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.

‘Not just unsightly’

The overall amount of litter in the last two decades is down, though trash at highway interchanges is up compared to the last two statewide studies conducted in 1999 and 2004. Cigarette butts made up a greater percentage of litter last year, compared to 1999.

The study sampled 182 sites, including roadways, interchanges, rest stops, parks and Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife lands across the state. It did not count litter associated with homeless encampments.

In total, the Department of Ecology and the Department of Transportation spent around $12 million last year to clean up an estimated 7.4 million pounds of litter, according to the study. But that is still less than one-fifth of the trash that accumulates each year.

About half of the trash came from people intentionally littering, such as throwing something outside their window while driving. About 39% of the litter came from unsecured loads, and the remaining 13% came from vehicle and tire debris.

“We acknowledge that roadside litter is not just unsightly but also poses serious safety concerns to travelers – including roadside workers and people who walk, bike and roll,” Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said in a statement.

Revisiting the litter tax and other proposals

The study includes a number of proposals for possible future legislation to help reduce litter.

One option is to reconsider the rate of the state litter tax and what items it covers. Currently, the 0.015% tax charges manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers on certain products, including cigarettes, beer, newspapers and plastic.

The litter tax rate is based on the cost of litter cleanup efforts in 1970, but in 2022, the revenue from the tax only covers less than one-fifth of the estimated litter each year. In the most recent study, about a quarter of the pieces of litter that accumulated were not covered by the tax.

Ecology also said they can use the study to evaluate the effects of recent legislation to ban single-use items, such as plastic carryout bags and service-ware, and determine if more restrictions on single-use items are necessary.

The study also mentions a number of other solutions to reduce litter, including adopting a beverage container deposit-return law, installing more public ashtrays and requiring towing companies to remove all vehicle debris from accidents.

by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

  1. Throughout the year, I travel to various corners of this state. Litter is prevalent along most roads. The rare time it does not exist is after a clean up crew comes through. Tagging exists under most every bridge and overpass. Typically, when this subject comes up, certain people blame these societal ills on homelessness. Undoubtably, homeless camps are gross. But they are not the source of most most litter in this state.

    Homeless people are not throwing garbage out of their car windows as they travel along I90 through Easton or Davenport on Hwy 2, and they aren’t tagging the entire restroom, inside and out, at Tonto Dam.

    It’s fairly obvious who is doing this: please STOP LITTERING.

  2. I moved to this state a year ago, I was initially happy to see volunteer crews picking up trash and getting it picked up. But now I’m starting to see chairs and mattresses everywhere (especially highways). I don’t think this is “loads that got loose” but rather some inconsiderate person that decided to let someone else deal with their trash. And yea towing companies need to be better about vehicle debris. There’s been a headlight sitting on the left side of highway 16 right where it merges with I5 for about a month now.

  3. I used to pick up the trash on either side of Olympic View for a hundred yards or so around my driveway, but increased traffic volume and speed have put an end to taking care of the non-sidewalk side. Still, it needs to be said that Edmonds is pretty good about not littering!

  4. We just got back from a 3-month road trip through 15 states in the US and 9 Canadian provinces. We never saw litter anywhere like we do here in Washington. It used to be that Washington roads were almost litter free. Now no one seems to care. I absolutely agree with the first comment — it is the everyday resident who is throwing their cigarette butts and single use plastic bottles out their car windows. The plan to increase taxes will not address these behaviors. It used to be that individuals got tickets if they littered. And we had more cleanup crews. Wonder where all the current tax dollars are going. A simple solution is to put a trash bag in your car and take some personal responsibility for your behaviors.

  5. Between the graffiti and garbage seems a segment of our population just doesn’t care. I would include the government in that segment because they call graffiti art and don’t hold people to account for their mess. I disagree homeless aren’t a major contributor 24 hours of community service minimum plus jail time for repeat offenders. Police who write the tickets and prosecutors who will actually hold people to account would go a long way to reducing this problem.

  6. I wish a litter crew or WSDOT would clean up the trash along the Express lanes between the Ship Canal Bridge and downtown Seattle. There are two particularly bad sections – one just south of the Ship Canal Bridge and then one at one of the exit ramps (between the Express lanes and an off ramp). This morning, I noticed two tents set up on top of one of the pillars around the Convention Center. Talk about a dangerous place to set up a tent. I’m not sure how they even got them up there.
    Don’t even get me started on the graffiti along I-5.

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