It's a strong sign you're on to a solid column idea when not one, not two, but three readers write to suggest the exact same topic as what you've got planned.
So I hope I make a few people happy with this one, even though it's an issue I'd prefer to never write about again: litter!
To no one's surprise, the few comments I heard were just the iceberg's tip of complaints about the mess along Highways 16, 3, and others around the region and state. Turns out it's a seasonal experience as the evergreen state emerges for spring — just much more so this time around the sun.
"Washington has had a problem with litter for years," statewide litter prevention coordinator Amber Smith told me, later acknowledging she's never heard as many complaints as during the past few weeks "COVID really just uncovered it."
Chalk up another one for the virus, I suppose. To be fair, winter has something to do with why you notice more litter this time of year — the grass and other brush that may obscure what's thrown in medians isn't growing, crews don't work winter months for safety reasons, and, just in my own opinion, the onset of spring heightens my senses to the scenery just a bit. But the COVID impact? It's significant. Let's go to the numbers.
Programs the state's Department of Ecology runs for litter cleanup offer pretty stark evidence as to what a pandemic does to staff or volunteer efforts like litter cleanup. In 2020 the Ecology Youth Corps (which is not all youth, as I'll explain soon) spent 3,000 hours doing cleanups in Kitsap and covered 200 miles of highway, which was already a drop from the year prior. In 2021, when the crews made up of youth ages 13-17 years old were suspended completely and adult crews limited to generally two individuals, that dropped to 1,600 hours and a little more than 100 miles. Taking a step back to the state level and comparing to a non-pandemic year, from 2019 to 2020 the number of hours spent picking up litter dropped from 57,000 to 33,000 (the state report with 2021 comparison is due later in March). That's a lot of miles not being covered and hours not being worked, in addition to the halt of a partnership with the Department of Corrections, in which inmates participate on road cleaning crews, for seven years, the last two due to the pandemic.
Ecology's programs aren't alone in the task. County programs and the state department of transportation's Adopt-A-Highway programs suffered declines or closures as well, due to limits on the size of crews that could travel to job sites together and simply a lack of workers or volunteers due to guidelines that limited gathering. And let's not forget all those disposable paper masks that suddenly materialized in 2020. Ever had one of those fall out of your pocket or purse?
Fortunately the news here isn't that the county's main corridor looks like trash (I mean, even my seven-year-old can see that and points it out often); the reason I'm writing is because something is being done about it, and hopefully in a noticeable way this year.
The ECY teams mentioned above, both youth and the adult crews of 4 to six people, are planned for 2022 back at the pre-pandemic staffing levels. Twelve will start work in March, including on the roads in Kitsap this month, according to Smith, starting at the Highway 16/3 interchange around Gorst and working north to the Hood Canal Bridge as the first step in the 2022 work plan. The effort by Ecology is slated to expand in summer when youth crews join in — though the state is still looking to hire for both, labor being the shortage it is these days — and then in May taking another approach — targeted at prevention rather than just cleanup. For three weekends in June the state patrol will run emphasis patrols for illegal unsecured loads that often scatter debris, along with a program to distribute litter bags folks can use in their cars and some public messaging around the issue to help individuals be more mindful of littering. Cutting litter off before it needs to be cleaned up is really the paramount goal, after all.
A few weeks ago I was talking with my father about a hesitation I have to use my column for criticism on issues when I could personally make a difference. That is, don't complain about something if you're not willing to get your hands dirty. With this one, I am. I'm part of an organization that adopted a stretch of Highway 303 in Central Kitsap through WSDOT years ago, and I can admit we've taken the past two years off. I'll be out there with some friends later this spring to get our program restarted, now that the state has revised protocols to accomodate a better group effort and encourage community groups to volunteer again.
Adopt-A-Highway is a big way that the community can help lighten the load for the government crews and get people engaged with beautifying their community. And if working on the side of the road isn't your thing, an option to simply sponsor a section of highway is offered, with your donation paying an outside contractor to fulfill the commitment.
"A lot of plans are in place," Smith told me, expressing her own optimism that communities can get litter under control. "This is the year we're going to turn it around."
For more information on the Adopt-A-Highway program in Kitsap County visit https://wsdot.wa.gov/business-wsdot/highway-signs/adopt-highway, and if you or someone you know would be interested in applying for a job with Ecology Youth Corps, visit https://ecology.wa.gov/About-us/Jobs/Ecology-Youth-Corps.
I don't know about you, but I get a little lift when it's time to do the spring cleaning around the house. Now how about we all feel that way about the community?
David Nelson has been editor of the Kitsap Sun since 2009. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: There's hope in 2022 for the litter headache along our highways