PennDOT Wins Governor’s Award for State Litter Action Plan

Governor Tom Wolf (D) recently presented a group of employees from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with Governor’s Awards for Excellence in recognition of their efforts to develop the first-ever Pennsylvania Litter Action Plan, unveiled in December 2021.

[Above photo by PennDOT]

The Governor’s Awards for Excellence recognize exemplary job performance or service that reflects initiative, leadership, innovation, and increased efficiency. The PennDOT and DEP team was among 50 employees from 12 state agencies honored by Governor Wolf for exceptional accomplishments in 2021.

Through coordination with over 100 stakeholders, the employees from both state agencies spearheaded the development of a plan with the goal to shift the focus of Pennsylvania’s response to litter from cleanup to prevention. The plan includes resources and suggestions for the General Assembly, state agencies, local governments, and the public.

The honorees are Natasha Fackler, former policy director for PennDOT; Emily Watts, former executive policy specialist at PennDOT; Jessica Shirley, former DEP policy director; and Kate Cole, DEP’s current policy director.

“It’s clear that in order to truly see less litter in Pennsylvania, we need to focus on getting people not to litter in the first place,” said PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, in a statement. “The Litter Action Plan provides real solutions that can be implemented at the state, local, and individual level to help make a cleaner Pennsylvania for all of us. I’m so proud of the work that this team has done to develop this plan.”

“This award is very well deserved and represents the work that this team has done to keep the Keystone State litter free,” added DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “This plan is needed because of the growing – and frankly disgusting – problem of litter polluting our lands and waters. The Litter Action Plan sets us on a path to a cleaner, more beautiful Pennsylvania.”

PennDOT said it spends roughly $14 million each year on litter cleanup statewide, while DEP has funded “Pick Up Pennsylvania” community litter cleanups and illegal dumpsite cleanups for over two decades – supporting volunteers in removing many tons of trash from the land and waters. 

The persistence of littering prompted PennDOT and DEP to collaborate with Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful to conduct the first comprehensive state study to inform development of the Litter Action Plan, with a focus on changing littering behavior. “It is my privilege to congratulate the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for their vital and mission-based work to develop the state’s first-ever Litter Action Plan,” noted Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. “The plan’s blueprint for implementing preventive measures and behavior changing strategies to reduce littering in Pennsylvania will benefit and positively impact the health, safety, and beauty of whole communities all across the Commonwealth.”

State DOTs Participate in Earth Day Cleanup Efforts

Around the country, state departments of transportation conducted or participated in a variety of pollution mitigation efforts on April 22 in honor of Earth Day.

[Above photo by KTRB]

Some 30 employees with the Tennessee Department of Transportation helped clean up areas around Chickamauga Lake along the Tennessee River.

The event – sponsored by the agency’s Nobody Trashes Tennessee public education campaign and Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTRB) – deployed a 26-foot workboat to clean up shorelines and coves.

“There is a strong correlation between roadside litter and water quality,” noted Denise Baker, Tennessee DOT’s transportation program supervisor, in a statement. “What starts as litter on land, can make its way into our waterways.”

The agency also promoted a number of environmental-friendly resources on its website as part of its Earth Day campaign.

The Tennessee DOT and KTRB also recently teamed up with other partners to establish a network of 17 “Seabin” automated litter and debris removal devices across the Tennessee River watershed.

In addition, in April 2021, the agency helped fund a pair of new exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium to illustrate how micro-plastics and other roadside trash can negatively affect the health of the ocean as well as rivers, lakes, and streams.

The new exhibits – housed in the Aquarium’s “River Journey” and supporting the Tennessee DOT’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter reduction campaign – includes actual debris taken from the banks of the Tennessee River: the focus of its current Seabin deployment project.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Transportation redoubled its litter collection efforts on Earth Day.

“Our research shows that accidental littering from unsecured loads and deliberate tossing of trash from vehicles contribute equally to what ends up along highways,” explained Chris Hughes, Ohio DOT District 1 deputy director, in a statement. “It’s especially visible at entrance ramps as vehicles enter the highway,” he said.

So far this year, Ohio DOT has collected 12,035 bags of litter along highways in the northwestern part of the state alone. Statewide, the agency said it spends approximately $4 million each year picking up about 400,000 bags of trash.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) held an Earth Day event underscoring the importance of reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector to improve air quality, improve health, and quality of life for residents.

In December 2021, Governor Ned Lamont (D) signed an executive order directing Connecticut DOT, DEEP, and all other state agencies to take meaningful actions to reduce carbon emissions. He has also proposed legislation (House Bill 5039) that seeks to adopt stronger emissions standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles, which his administration said accounts for as much as 53 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, despite being only 6 percent of the on-road vehicle fleet. 

“We know that communities of color and other vulnerable communities have been the most impacted by harmful air pollution caused by transportation,” noted Connecticut DOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti in a statement.

“[We are] committed to investing in sustainable solutions that protect the environment and keep communities healthy,” he added. “We are doing our part to create a cleaner, more equitable, and resilient transportation system.”

Tennessee DOT Helping Deploy ‘Seabins’ for River Cleanup

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has teamed up with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTRB) and other partners to establish a network of 17 “Seabin” automated litter and debris removal devices across the Tennessee River watershed.

[Above photo by the Seabin Project]

Seabin devices work continuously to skim and collect marine debris from the surface of the water. Each receptacle can remove up to 3,000 pounds of marine debris annually, while also filtering out gasoline, oils, and “micro-plastics” from the water.

Grants from the Tennessee DOT and the national Keep America Beautiful organization provided the funds supporting this deployment of the Seabin devices.

The Tennessee DOT’s contribution includes the purchase and installation of 10 devices at locations throughout Tennessee, as well as funding for two years of water-based cleanups of the river and its tributaries within the state – funding made in conjunction with the agency’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter prevention campaign.

“[Our] partnership with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful demonstrates the link between roadside litter and debris that ends up in our waterways,” explained Joseph Galbato, Tennessee DOT interim commissioner, in a statement. “Investing in this substantial network of litter removal devices is another example of how TDOT promotes innovative solutions to making our state cleaner and keeping our waterways clear.”

In addition to the 17 Seabins deployed in Tennessee, another two will deploy on the Tennessee River in Alabama, with one other placed on one of the river’s tributaries in North Carolina.

“Until now, all of our work has only been able to prevent micro-plastics in our waterways, so we are thrilled to the Tennessee DOT and Keep America Beautiful for these – as I see it – revolutionary grants and to our partners who will be maintaining the Seabins to make this trailblazing project possible,” added Kathleen Gibi, KTRB’s executive director.

The Tennessee DOT is an agency known for funding different and innovative ways to reduce littering.

For example, in April 2021, the agency helped fund a pair of new exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium illustrate how micro-plastics and other roadside trash can negatively affect the health of the ocean as well as rivers, lakes, and streams.

The new exhibits – housed in the Aquarium’s “River Journey” and supporting the Tennessee DOT’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter reduction campaign – include actual debris taken from the banks of the Tennessee River: the focus of its current Seabin deployment project.

PennDOT Gears up for Spring Litter Removal Effort

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection are joining forces to encourage local businesses and residents to support the state’s spring “Pick Up Pennsylvania” campaign, focused on removing litter from state roadways, waterways, and “green spaces” such as state parks.

[Above photo by PennDOT]

That collaborative effort between the two agencies is a key part of Pennsylvania’s first ever “Litter Action Plan,” unveiled by Governor Tom Wolf (D) in November 2021.

“[We are] responsible for maintaining 40,000 miles of roadway, roads that wind through some of the most beautiful, scenic landscapes in the country,” said PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian in a statement, noting that PennDOT spends roughly $14 million annually on litter removal efforts along state roadways.

 “Our Adopt-a-Highway Volunteers are very important to this effort, but as litter mounts, our multi-million-dollar cleanup efforts must continue – again taking our valuable resources away from highway maintenance operations,” she pointed out.

[Editor’s note: The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recently appointed Gramian to a two-year term as chair of its Committee on Environment and Sustainability or CES.]

 “Clean green spaces and waterways factor into our physical and mental health and enable the function of the ecosystem we depend on,” added DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, pointing out that – so far – there are 290 spring “Pick Up Pennsylvania” cleanup events scheduled, with 21,000 volunteers slated to participate in those trash removal efforts.

PennDOT added that its Adopt-A-Highway program now includes over 4,250 participating groups and more than 103,300 registered volunteers covering nearly 8,800 miles of adopted state-maintained roadways.  

“We see the great impact that volunteers have in reducing the litter polluting our roads, neighborhoods, and parks,” said DEP’s McDonnell. “It’s unimaginable where we’d be without the help of these best of Pennsylvanians. However, cleanup is a very costly approach to the litter problem in the long term. We must move out of reactive mode and be more proactive to prevent littering.”

Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Transportation noted that its crews removed 800 tons of litter and trash from just along Maricopa County freeways in 2021 – a 47 percent increase compared to the litter picked up in 2017.

Each week, the agency said its maintenance crews are able to clean about 250 miles along the freeway system, thanks to funding from the Maricopa Association of Governments. Nevertheless, the amount of litter and trash increases along Valley freeways year after year.

The agency noted in a blog post that trash build-up also clogs drainage systems, leading to water pooling on roadways, while large debris that falls onto roadways can be hazardous as drivers swerve to avoid the items.

Caltrans Awards $312M for Beautification Projects

As part of Governor Gavin Newsom’s landmark $1.1 billion Clean California initiative, the California Department of Transportation recently awarded $312 million for 126 beautification projects along the state’s highway system.

[Above photo by Caltrans]

Developed in close collaboration with tribal and local governments, non-profits, and businesses, those 126 beautification projects – due to begin in April – include art installations, green space (such as parks or community gardens), and proposals that “improve safety and promote community connections.”

Designed to foster cultural connections and civic pride, Caltrans noted in a statement that those projects should generate 3,600 jobs as part of the governor’s multi-year cleanup initiative to remove trash and beautify community gateways and public areas along highways, streets, and roads. The agency added that roughly 98 percent of those beautification projects would benefit historically underserved or excluded communities.

“With Clean California projects transforming more and more sites across the state, we’re taking the next step to create enriching public spaces that serve the needs of our diverse communities and that all of us can take pride in – starting in the neighborhoods that need it most,” said Governor Gavin Newsom (D) in a separate statement. “Working together, the state and local governments are advancing unique beautification projects that will make a positive impact for years to come.”

In addition to these awards for Clean California projects along the state right-of-way, the governor announced in December 2021 the availability of almost $300 million in grants to cities and counties for local projects that “clean and beautify” neighborhood streets, parks, and transit centers throughout California.

Caltrans will review the project proposals from cities, counties, transit agencies, tribal governments, and other governmental entities, then announce grant recipients on March 1.

Over the next three years, Caltrans estimates that the “Clean California” program will remove an additional 1.2 million cubic yards, or 21,000 tons, of trash from the state highway system alone. The initiative has already resulted in 6,300 tons of litter being removed from the State Highway System and, to date, Caltrans has hired 528 new team members, including 428 maintenance workers who collect litter and perform maintenance duties like graffiti removal.

Arizona DOT: Highway Litter Increasing in Maricopa County

The Arizona Department of Transportation, along with its maintenance contractors, picked up 118,578 bags or 811 tons of trash along freeways in Maricopa County in 2021.

[Above photo by the Arizona DOT]

Unfortunately, the agency said that represents a continuing increase in litter collected from 250 miles of state highway in Maricopa County. During the past five years, Arizona DOT litter has steadily increased along state freeways in Maricopa County. In 2017, the agency said it picked up 80,442 bags of litter compared to the 118,578 bags in 2021 – a 47 percent increase.

“Drivers can help out by simply not littering,” said Mary Currie, who manages Arizona DOT’s Adopt a Highway program, in a statement. “Don’t toss that burger wrapper, paper cup or cigarette butt out of the window. All of those seemingly small and insignificant items build up over time creating safety issues.”

Some of those safety issues include blockages of stormwater drainage grates, sometimes preventing water from flowing freely to retention basins, drainage channels or pump stations. That can cause standing water to build in low-lying locations along freeways. Over time, litter also can negatively affect the operation of pumps that remove storm runoff along some Phoenix-area freeways. 

Several other state departments of transportation are also witnessing similar increases in highway litter.

For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said that by November 2021, its crews, contractors, and volunteers collected more than 12 million pounds of litter from state roadways, surpassing the previous trash-collection record of 10.5 million pounds in 2019.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation specifically expanded its “routine” litter pickup operations statewide through the Labor Day holiday in 2021, especially on higher-traffic roadways where volunteer groups cannot safely pick up litter, in order to deal with increased trash accumulation along state roadways.

“Every dollar we have to spend on litter cleanup is a dollar we cannot invest in our system,” PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian explained in a statement at the time – noting that her agency spends roughly $14 million annually on statewide litter removal efforts.

PennDOT to Help Spearhead State’s First-Ever Litter Action Plan

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will play a key role in executing the state’s first-ever ‘Litter Action Plan’ unveiled by Governor Tom Wolf (D) on November 22.

[Above photo by PennDOT]

“Pennsylvania is a great place to live, work, and raise a family. It’s a beautiful state with stunning landscapes and bountiful natural resources. But, we’ve got a litter problem,” said Gov. Wolf in a statement.

“Litter is bad for the environment and our communities, it’s a drain on taxpayer dollars,” he added. “I’m excited to unveil a solution that all 13 million Pennsylvanians can be a part of. It’s a blueprint for a cleaner commonwealth.”

Demonstrating the cost of litter to communities and the commonwealth, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian noted that the agency’s annual $14 million cost to clean up litter makes litter prevention especially important.

“We recognize we need to change behavior, not just clean up the mess,” she said. “With this commonwealth Litter Action Plan, we’ve provided examples, resources, and calls to action so we can make some transformative change here in Pennsylvania.”

The plan outlines 16 recommendations for Pennsylvania, while also detailing efforts by several state agencies in supporting the “higher-level” recommendations in the plan. Those include:

  • PennDOT, the Department of Community and Economic Development, and Department of Environmental Protection collaboration on an anti-litter campaign anticipated for spring 2022.
  • PennDOT analysis of where and how to ensure it has the right litter-reducing tools in place in its public-facing facilities.
  • DEP’s work on a new rulemaking to provide convenient and affordable access to waste disposal and recycling services in rural areas of Pennsylvania where trash collection and recycling services are currently not economically feasible. 
  • Updates to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources “Leave No Trace” program with working to update their concessionaire agreements to include language aimed at combatting litter, such as requiring food providers to minimize paper straw and disposable utensil use.
  • When onsite composting is available at a state park, concessionaires will be required to work with DCNR to convert as many of their food service products to compostable, paper-based forest product alternatives and then compost them with the food waste.
  • The Pennsylvania State Police “Operation Clean Sweep,” which launched this summer, reinforces a zero-tolerance mindset with litter enforcement. This complements their assistance with enforcing “Litter Enforcement Corridors” that state agencies and local governments can designate via a 2018 law to combat litter.

The plan’s workgroups included 17 participants from local governments and among the group’s recommendations for local governments is the suggestion to “get creative with public waste infrastructure maintenance.” It also recommends several proposals to the state’s General Assembly to change existing laws – as well as proposing three laws – to reduce littering.

State DOTs Step Up Roadway Litter Removal Efforts

The Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Arkansas Department of Transportation, and the Arizona Department of Transportation are the latest agencies to beef up anti-litter activities across their respective states.

[Above photo by the Arkansas DOT]

“As we approach the holidays and increased travel, we want to ensure our roadways are safe from the harmful effects of litter,” explained Clay Bright, the former commissioner of the Tennessee DOT, in a statement.

“Whether intentional or unintentional, litter on our roads impacts safety, the environment, and the economy, while also detracting from the state’s natural beauty,” he added. “We are grateful for our many partners across the state coming together to help prevent and reduce litter.”

[Editor’s note: Governor Bill Lee (R) recently named Bright to serve as the CEO of the Megasite Authority of West Tennessee, with Joe Galbato – the current chief of the bureau of administration for the Tennessee DOT – stepping in to serve as interim commissioner.]

The Tennessee DOT and Nobody Trashes Tennessee recently launched “No Trash November,” a month-long statewide initiative encouraging state residents to participate in cleanup events in their communities, in partnership with Keep Tennessee Beautiful and Adopt-A-Highway groups.

“We are rallying our local Keep America Beautiful affiliates to participate in the first-ever No Trash November campaign to help reach the goal to remove 20,000 pounds of litter from our roads,” said Missy Marshall, executive director of Keep Tennessee Beautiful.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Department of Transportation is beefing up its “Keep It Clean, Arkansas” anti-litter campaign with the addition of a new educational video.

ARDOT launched its refreshed campaign in October at the Arkansas State Fair, providing information to those interested in taking a proactive approach to litter and wanting to get involved with the Adopt-a-Highway program, which sponsors more than 900 volunteer cleanup groups statewide. 

“People may not realize it, but long-term damage occurs when litter hits the highway,” explained Holly Butler, executive assistant for the agency’s public information office, in a statement. “Trash doesn’t just stay on the side of the road. It also gets washed into nearby rivers, lakes and streams, and pollutes waterways and aquatic habitats.” 

[Editor’s note: In April, the Tennessee Aquarium opened a pair of new exhibits funded by the grants from the Tennessee DOT to illustrate how microplastics and other roadside trash can negatively affect the health of the ocean as well as rivers, lakes, and streams.]

Arkansas has the 12th largest highway system in the nation with more than 16,000 miles of roadway to maintain and keep litter-free. However, for every one mile of road, Arkansas averages 2,000 pieces of trash – adding up to almost 32 million pieces of litter each year and costing the agency $5 million annually to remove it.

Finally, the Arizona Department of Transportation provided an update on the roadway debris-removal prowess of its Incident Response Unit or IRU, which started up two years ago with sponsorship by State Farm.

The IRU patrols freeways to provide vital services including removing litter and debris blocking roadways, including commercial load spills, ladders, couches, even air conditioning units. In addition to litter removal, the IRU provides traffic control at crash scenes and aids stranded motorists.

“Litter is an ugly problem anywhere and objects in the roadway can cause serious and even fatal incidents,” said David Blue, Arizona DOT’s IRU manager, in a statement. “Our job is to respond as rapidly as possible to get the driving surface clear and make sure conditions are safe for everyone.”

Oklahoma DOT Names Winners of Student Trash Poster Contest

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation recently announced the 14 winners of its annual “Trash Poster” calendar contest. The original artwork of those 14 kindergarten through 12th-grade students highlighting the consequences and negative impacts of littering will adorn a free 2022 calendar distributed by the agency while supplies last.

[Above image via the Oklahoma DOT]

The Oklahoma DOT sponsors this yearly contest in collaboration with 14 partners including the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, and the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.

The 14 contest winners will receive a monetary award, a T-shirt and facemask with their design, a laminated copy of their poster, and a state legislative citation of congratulations. The teachers of the winning students will receive a monetary award for classroom supplies and a two-day stay voucher to an Oklahoma state park courtesy of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, the Oklahoma DOT said.

“We continue to be amazed by the quality of art we receive from our state’s gifted students and their passion for a healthy, cleaner environment,” said Melody Johnson, Oklahoma DOT’s beautification coordinator, in a statement.

“Their work continues to inspire us in our mission to end littering across Oklahoma. Thank you to all the students for their submissions and to their wonderful teachers for including this important public messaging in their classrooms,” she added.

The agency noted that it spends nearly $6 million annually to combat litter along state highways and interstates while the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority spends an additional $1.5 million yearly to clean up trash strewn along the state’s toll road – totals that do not include the hundreds of volunteer hours spent picking up litter across the state every year.

State departments of transportation across the country are engaged in a variety of anti-litter outreach and cleanup efforts to remove trash and debris strewn along state roadways.

The California Department of Transportation recently launched a new public awareness campaign today dubbed “Let’s Change This to That” to help reduce the amount of litter and other pollutants on highways that end up in California’s water system.

Using visual comparisons of dirty and pristine roadsides and landscapes, the campaign encourages Californians to pitch in to keep highways clean and our water drinkable, swimmable and fishable.

Caltrans also recently released a video detailing the progress of its newly established $1.1 billion Clean California program that is tackling the state’s litter problems. Using before-and-after footage from Clean California events throughout the state, the video shows how Caltrans programs are clearing trash, removing graffiti, and clearing overgrown vegetation to help beautify the state’s roadsides.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said its crews, contractors, and volunteers had collected more than 10 million pounds of litter from roadsides by the end of September – close to breaking the state’s record for litter collection set in 2019.  

That announcement came on the heels of the two-week Fall Litter Sweep, which saw more than 418,000 pounds of roadside litter picked up statewide. NCDOT estimates its litter removal efforts for 2021 should exceed the 2019 record of 10.5 million pounds sometime in October.

PennDOT Enhancing Litter Cleanup Efforts Through Labor Day

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is expanding routine litter pickup operations statewide through the Labor Day holiday, especially on higher-traffic roadways where volunteer groups cannot safely pick up litter.

[Above photo by PennDOT]

Simultaneously, the agency is echoing calls by Governor Tom Wolf (D) for state residents to help reduce roadway littering – which includes new anti-littering messages on electronic highway message signs statewide through September 2 – as trash pickup remains a costly effort.

“Every dollar we have to spend on litter cleanup is a dollar we cannot invest in our system,” PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian explained in a statement – noting that her agency spends roughly $14 million annually on statewide litter removal efforts. “We are grateful for the work of our crews and volunteers, though what we really need is an end to littering,” she added.

PennDOT also conducted the Pennsylvania Litter Research Study from 2018 through 2019 along with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Keep America Beautiful, and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful.

That study – unveiled in February 2020 –  indicates that more than 502 million pieces of litter on Pennsylvania’s roads, with the most common being cigarette butts (37 percent) and plastics (30 percent), while plastic film and beverage containers are the most prevalent items – with an estimated 29.3 million beverage containers alone littering the state’s roads.

Alongside PennDOT’s litter cleanup efforts, the Pennsylvania State Police initiated Operation Clean Sweep this summer to reinforce a “zero-tolerance” mindset with litter enforcement and sharing anti-litter messages throughout the year. That law enforcement operation complements a 2018 state law allowing the designation of Litter Enforcement Corridors, which are roadways deemed to have “a high aesthetic or historic value” worth preserving or in need of some additional help with litter issues. Approved segments will be marked with signs to notify motorists of additional litter fines – doubling them for motorists caught scattering rubbish in such corridors, then tripling them if commercial businesses are in charge of litter removal.