The Anthropology of Roadside Trash

green frederick trash

Linda shares her trash capture from Memorial Day weekend!

For a year now I have been routinely cleaning up litter along a two -mile stretch of Harmony Road, sometimes with the help of family and friends. We adopted it as part of Green Frederick’s mission to serve the community.

Its a bucolic setting, winding along the stream valley of the mighty but Little Catoctin Creek which meanders through the Myersville area. Even with the work that I’m doing, as I bend over time and time again I have time to reflect about what I find along the way.

Here are some observations:
1) Roadside Character Analysis. Every roadside takes on the personality of the people that use it. While that may seem a statement of the obvious, it becomes really granular when you’re picking up the detritus that “normal” people feel compelled to throw out their windows. I’ve done litter cleanups for years with Scout troops and volunteer groups, and the things we find have a different theme every time.

2) The Lunch Bunch. The most intriguing thing about Harmony Road between MD 17 and US 40 is the “lunchroom” trash. I’ve never seen so many zip-lock bags in a litter pickup project before! It’s as if a school bus full of children emptied their lunch boxes out the window every day—but it goes on year-round (even when school is out!)

This is noticeable because, since I regularly clean the same stretch of the road several times a year, the same trash returns. Every time, somewhere along the road I find plastic ziplock baggies with empty wraps from crackers, crusts of sandwiches, balled up napkins; trays from lunchables. I also find small one-serve milk bottles, water bottles, and juices; I find banana peels and apple cores (which I leave to decay). Whoever is eating and discarding these lunches packs very similar meals to what I grew up learning was a traditional lunch-sandwich, fruit and Cookie/cracker treat with a drink.

3) Throw Your Vices Out the Window. Like everywhere, people have their share of vices in the vicinity of Harmony Road. The bag I carry for recyclables is inevitably filled and weighting me down with Coors lite, Miller and Budweiser bottles (as well as a variety of smashed can beers) far before my trash bag is; and the number of empty Pall Mall, Native Spirit and Marlboro cigarette packs I’ve picked up has been in the dozens.

4) Car Parts Galore. The highway produces a lot of plastic and metal trash. Interstate 70 crosses over my section of Harmony Road (see the video for a good look), and along the  quarter mile on either side of it I usually find discarded pieces of rug, floor mats, sections of black plastic that I assume are pieces of bumpers (that I always hope are not the result of accidents above) as well as scraps of aluminum and some type of faux metal that is actually plastic treated to appear metallic.

5) Odd Stuff. Though I don’t find a lot of them, three items of significance I found are striking. I’ve separately found two drivers licenses; and an envelope with a paycheck (all of which I returned to the owners).

I don’t have a way at my home to weigh the trash and recyclables, so it is difficult to estimate what I’ve collected; the Frederick County Highway Department, which runs the program, is unfortunately not very responsive when I write to them to pick up bags I’ve left along the roadside, so for most of the year I’ve simply brought them home and deposited them in my own trash and recycling bin. I would guesstimate I’ve brought home 10 bags of trash and 15 bags of recyclables over the year.

Its an interesting psychological experience. In other circumstances — probably because I’d had my Girl Scout troop with me–people would stop to thank us for cleaning the road. I haven’t yet had that in the past year; more normally, people look at me as if I’m nuts or slightly touched.

However, it IS making an impact. In past litter pickups we routinely speculate that seeing litter pickup encourages people to litter more because they assume someone is taking care of it for them. However, except for my lunch-eating friends and the people who want to dump signs of their vices on the side of the road, I have seen less trash since I am regularly monitoring my stretch of Harmony Road, and thats an encouraging thing–both for the environment and for my opinion of human nature!

Resources: Frederick County Adopt-A-Road program

State of Maryland Adopt-A-Road program 

Plogging (picking up trash while jogging)