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Health, Science & Environment

From 'trucker bombs' to plastic bags, Ohio spends over $10M a year picking up highway litter

A tire sits on the side of the highway in grass
Renee Wilde
From 2019 until present, ODOT and the department of rehabilitation and corrections and our adopt-a-highway groups have spent 943,824 hours picking up litter along state highways.

On a windy spring day, ODOT workers Guy Baker, Stacey Thorton and Doug Gruver were picking up trash along an exit ramp on U.S. 35 in Greene County.

They found plastic bags, religious books, food wrappers, beer cans, cigarette packs, broken bungee cords and ratchet straps, miscellaneous car parts and a lone pair of gray men's underwear.

Over 2 million bags of litter have been cleaned up from the side of Ohio's highways over the last five years. That’s enough litter to fill every seat in the Ohio Stadium 50 times over, costing taxpayers around $4 million a year.

But the most common type of litter that the crew members find when they clean along the highways is also the most disgusting.

“Unfortunately it’s trucker bombs, and if you don’t know what a trucker bomb is…” Doug Gruver said, laughing.

A trucker bomb is when a driver urinates in an empty bottle, caps it and tosses the bottle out the window onto the side of the road.

Baker said he sometimes tries to double up on his gloves when picking up litter to protect himself, layering rubber gloves under his thicker, leather work gloves.

The trio said that along with garbage, they also find bigger items abandoned along the roads like furniture and mattresses.

“The thing with the mattresses is you always have the concern of bed bugs. That’s always a big concern,” Gruver said. “And if I had to, I’ll pick them up in the winter and hopefully the cold kills them.”

Enough litter to fill 50 stadiums

From 2019 until present, ODOT, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, and adopt-a-highway groups have spent 943,824 hours picking up litter along state highways.

"So that’s quite a bit of time. And in that time we have collected 2,068,393 bags of litter," Mandi Dillion, a spokesperson for ODOT for southwest Ohio, said.

That’s enough litter to fill every seat in the Ohio Stadium on Ohio State University 50 times over, costing taxpayers around $4 million a year.

“It is a big problem,” Dillion said. “We are constantly trying to remind people to please dispose properly any kind of trash that you have. Because one of the points that we like to remind people about is that our crews can definitely go out and do litter pick ups, however, they are also doing a lot of maintenance to keep your roads running and working correctly.”

“So if they don’t have to take the time to pick up litter that’s not supposed to be there in the first place, that allows them to do other parts of their jobs, such as guardrail repairs, pothole patches, things like that,” she added.

plastic trash is piled on the side of a highway in Ohio
Renee Wilde
Groups can also help by adopting a two mile stretch of highway through ODOT’s adopt-a-highway program, and volunteering a minimum of 4 times a year to pick up litter.

Taking action

Many communities and organizations sponsor roadside cleanup events each April in conjunction with Earth Day.

Dillion said that there are other things motorists can do.

“I know one of the things also that we focus on sometimes is just clean-your-car-out day, because there’s less litter that you're tempted to throw out the window if you're cleaning your car out and it’s going in the trash,” she said. “So that’s another thing that people can do.”

Groups can also help by adopting a two-mile stretch of highway through ODOT’s adopt-a-highway program, volunteering a minimum offour times a year to pick up litter.

ODOT will provide safety training, trash bags, disposable safety vests and two signs to be used at the beginning of the two mile section. The only cost to each group is their time.

But, Dillion said the bottom line is, litter shouldn’t be there in the first place. There are places that people should be putting their waste.

"And the side of the road isn’t one of them," she said.

Corrected: April 23, 2024 at 12:02 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story included an out of date number for the cost to pick up highway litter. The Ohio Department of Transportation now says it spends $10 million a year on removing trash.
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Health, Science & Environment Ohio NewsEarth Day
Renee Wilde is an award-winning independent public radio producer, podcast host, and hobby farmer living in the hinterlands of southwestern Ohio.