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Trash litters

by Richard Mason | February 20, 2021 at 6:00 p.m.

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve tackled the highway litter problem, and it probably won’t be the last. But this time, I’m going to focus on something our Legislature can do about it.

What sent me on a tear this time?

I’m a former jogger, now a walker and an occasional jogger. However, I’ve noticed some things a lot more while walking than I ever did while jogging. Yes, you guessed it. I’ve had time to really become even more aware of the horrible roadside trash problem we have in our state.

Some sections of our highways, especially where cars are slowed down by stop lights or sharp curves, are so littered that it looks as if there is a carpet of trash, and backroads where 20-30 miles-per-hour is the average speed are a magnet for trash. Of course it’s not strictly an Arkansas problem, and we probably don’t lead the nation in roadside trash, but I will bet we’re in the top five. Roadside trash is on every roadside in the Natural State.

Wow, “Natural State.” What an oxymoron!

Okay, I think the average Arkansawyer would like to see our roadsides cleaned up, but how do we do it? Of course picking up the trash is a horrible solution, but better than doing nothing.

Back when I was the Chairman of the Department of Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, which is now the Department of Environmental Quality, I led a push for the Highway Department to post roadside signs with a phone number and a statement that littering could result in a $1,000 fine. The Highway Department took our suggestion and put up the signs. There were hundreds of calls along with reported license numbers, but the last time I checked, not a single fine had been levied.

If we aren’t going to enforce our littering laws what can we do?

Well, why not take a look at states where something is getting done about the problem. Just a glance at the internet will tell you that dozens of other states have tackled the problem, and have had a tremendous reduction in the littering.

So instead of haggling over a bill to preempt the regulation of children’s lemonade stands, why not pass a bill that would cut down on the multi-tons of trash that fill our roadsides? From just a glance at the internet, we know we’re not leading the country in regulations to outlaw the use of items such as one-use cups, plastic eating utensils, plastic bags and Styrofoam products. I know some of you are shaking your head mumbling about your first or maybe your third amendment rights, and saying, “This ain’t no California.”

Of course, every one of those restrictions will one day be passed by the Legislature. That’s just the way it works. But today, how many votes would a bill banning all of those products get in the Arkansas Legislature… if you could even find a legislator to introduce the bill.

Well, it would never even get out of committee, but if by hook or crook it did, would it even get a half dozen votes? No! We’re not even remotely close to passing such a bill, which would slow down the tons of trash along our highways. Yes, that’s a fact, so where do we start? It’s really one trashy item at a time.

It seems to me that beer and soft drink cans are one of the leading trash makers along our highways, and the aluminum cans don’t seem to be worth enough to encourage someone to pick them up, so let’s mandate they be sold in glass returnable bottles, and tack on a $0.15 deposit… No, forget that. We’re not ready for an aluminum can ban, even though 10 states have similar laws, and some have had the laws since the 1970s. You have got to crawl before you can walk, and we’re still in the womb. Let’s start with some baby steps.

Why don’t we kick off the anti-litter campaign with two very simple items?

Number one: Let’s at least acknowledge the huge plastic problem we have by banning plastic straws. Believe me, that’s not a big deal. It’s been a couple of years since Vertis and I have used straws of any kind. I actually like a no straw drink better, and I think it’s because I’m an ice cruncher, and you can’t suck ice through a straw. Really, once you start turning down straws, you won’t even think of drinking with them. Would you drink a beer with a straw?

Number two: Let’s ban plastic bags, and make it a $0.50 automatic charge per bag to use the store’s paper sack. Surely, we could take this baby step to do doing something about the multimillion plastic sacks that go into roadside garbage or in a landfill. We have been using our own reusable sacks for a couple of years, and once you get started using your bags, you will do it every time, and even though some stores won’t bag purchases in your sacks, that’s not a big deal. Then you can have that “holier than though” attitude as you walk out of Walmart behind a guy pushing a basket with 20 plastic sacks of groceries. Just kidding, but after a while it will make you shake your head when you see just how many plastic bags a Walmart buggy can hold.

Trash is a worldwide problem that grows and grows every year, and not only do the mountains of trash clog our roadsides, it fills up landfills with non-biodegradable plastic.

Just think what our roadsides would look like if the Highway Department didn’t pick up any of the trash? Then think of the thousands of dollars per year spent trying to keep the trash from just covering us up.

Of course, if it’s plastic trash, and not picked up and disposed of, it will be there for around 100 years. By not recycling, countries around the world are using a tremendous amount of their resources to keep their citizens supplied with Styrofoam, plastic and other throwaway items, which not only create billions of tons of garbage, but their production dirties the air and the process to create the plastic contributes to Global Warming.

Global Warming? Yes! The recent Arkansas deep freeze that just abated is exactly what the experts predicted, and in Australia, where it’s summer, they are having record heat waves. (Sorry I got off message.)

We Americans are spoiled. That’s right, and we are so spoiled that the slightest inconvenience is just dismissed. We shrug our shoulders, and quip, “If you think I’m going to do any of those things, you are full of it.” It seems to me a lot of those folks include the, “I ain’t wearing no mask!” and are the same ones who toss a beer can out the window of their car, and you know “Trash Litters.”

Would it be too much to ask our legislators to make an effort to address the problem?

“Okay, House Speaker Mathew from the roadside litter capital of south Arkansas, El Dorado. The balls is in your court.”

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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