Littering on freeways brings harm to humans

People continue to throw litter out of their windows, thinking that roadways are clean


Ashley Lee

Trash piles up on the sides of freeways in the Bay Area.

Leaning my head on the car window on a sunny day, and occasionally looking out, I didn’t immediately recognize what it was on the shoulders of the freeway. Looking closely for several miles, all I felt was shock and disbelief at the amount of trash littering both the sides. Littering has always been in my mind, but all I thought about was how it harmed the environment, not how it would come back to humans.

Littering is defined as dumping trash in any public or private place without the permission to do so by the landowner or the people on that land. Littering on the freeway is illegal in the U.S. It  can be punished with a $250 to $3,000 fine and litterers may be required to participate in roadside pickup for eight hours, depending on the number of offenses. While litter is most known to create environmental impacts, it can come back to humans as a more severe impact.

California Highway Patrol Officer Tyler Hahn in Dublin says that littering has resulted in 2,300 tickets throughout the state in 2020, and that the CHP had partnered with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in 2020 to help clean up freeway litter.

“Littering is just rude, it makes our roadways look like trash cans, and that’s not what any of us want to look at as we’re driving on the highway,” says Hahn. “[We decided to help Caltrans] so we can educate the public on things that can happen when people litter, like potential traffic collisions.”

People naturally try to avoid trash, especially if it is something like a load from a pickup or Styrofoam flying from the back of a truck. Drivers might turn sharply and collide with other cars, he said. On average, there are about 25,000 car accidents that involve littering and trying to avoid it, and about 80 to 90 people die yearly because of it.

Cleaning up litter costs a lot. In May 2021 California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $1.5 billion to clean up freeway trash. 

People tend to litter because they know that there is someone to clean up after them, may think that littering is not an environmental issue, and argue that picking the trash up isn’t their job.

While it is true that there are people cleaning up after them, it is rude to simply toss things out of the window and cause others to take time out of their day to clean up after careless people. In addition to the environmental impacts, everything we do to the environment comes back to us.

Arshed Syed, a volunteer for the Adopt-a-Highway road clean up program, has been helping to clean a two-mile section of Interstate 680 North from the Bollinger Canyon exit and the Crow Canyon exit.

“What you think is not your job ends us being a job for other people, and not everyone likes to clean up after others,” says Syed. “At the end there’s a lot of issues that are caused by the trash, such as the trash attracting the animals to eat through it.”

A person’s decision made in a second to throw a piece of trash out of their window from a car causes the time of the roadside clean-up agencies such as Caltrans, who are on the shoulders often to clean up, and those who participated in Adopt-a-Highway to be spent trying to clear the trash of the environment. Twenty-four billion pieces of trash were picked up U.S. highways in 2020 alone.

Adopt-a-Highway is a campaign that allows companies to “adopt” a span of two miles on a highway, and has them promise to clean up after the litter at least four times a year.

People continue to throw litter out of their windows, thinking that roadways are clean simply because they have never seen the amount of litter getting picked up. In reality, the freeway looks clean thanks to Caltrans and volunteers.

If we continue to throw trash on the roads, the efforts of both Caltrans and the volunteers will not be enough to maintain clean roads. As the amount of trash increases, roads will become undrivable, and many things, such as transporting goods and getting to workplaces, would be impossible. If everyone thinks one more time before deciding to toss something out of a window, then it will save the time of volunteers and workers, save money, and prevent collisions.

“It takes us four whole weekends throughout a month to clean up the entire two mile stretch with four to six people,” says Syed. “It’s the carelessness of folks that’s most frustrating, it’s frustrating to discover plastic bottles or bags that were carelessly thrown out.”