Officials doubt state’s rank in litter control

Consultant’s analysis looked at such things as recycling rules

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OLYMPIA — A freelance researcher recently deemed Washington the best state in the nation for litter control, puzzling skeptical agency officials who point to bleak trends in statewide litter removal.

Steve Spacek, an environmental policy research consultant, presented a report called “The American State Litter Scorecard 2011” at a conference for the American Society for Public Administration on March 13 in Baltimore. In his report, Spacek wrote that he examined each of the 50 states on such bases as litter taxation, recycling rules and legislation, and per-person daily waste disposal.

Washington came out ahead of the rest, Spacek determined.

“The Evergreen State got high national scores for having litter taxation, comprehensive recycling and state governor’s environmental responsibility reputation,” Spacek said.

Washington also scored above average on licensed drivers’ knowledge of littering and various road laws, among other categories, he said.

Nonetheless, Spacek said his report “is just an approximation — a picture — of what is happening in a state … a contributing inquiry into a poorly probed matter.”

Spacek said he wants to challenge all states to improve their litter removal policies.

Officials in charge of monitoring, evaluating and implementing litter control at the departments of Ecology and Transportation are hesitant to accept Spacek’s suggestion that Washington has an exemplary litter control system.

WSDOT’s Maintenance Operations division evaluates highway litter control throughout the state on a letter grading system. Each grade represents a certain level of funding and service that can go toward litter removal.

For 2010, the division gave Washington a “D” grade in litter pickup.

“This is a low maintenance service level in which the roadway and associated features are kept in generally poor condition,” according to the DOT’s website.

Southwest Washington received a “D+” for 2010.

The DOT’s assessment takes into account the total number of four-inch by four-inch or larger pieces of litter counted in tenth-of-a-mile sections of the state’s highways.

Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman for the Maintenance Operations division, said litter control in Washington is in less than ideal shape.

“It’s great that they think we did a good job,” Fiman said, “but there’s still room for improvement.”

Budget, staff cuts

Recent funding cuts to the Department of Ecology’s Waste Reduction, Recycling and Litter Control Account, which funds the agency’s litter removal projects, have taken a toll on statewide litter collection.

Between 2009 and 2011, Ecology’s litter program went through a series of cuts that amounted to about $6.6 million, and the state agency axed four litter coordinator positions. On top of that, the program already faces a $7 million cut for the 2011-2013 biennium.

Funding dropped to half its normal level in the last biennium for the agency’s program that pays sheriff’s deputies to oversee crews of people who are sentenced to pick up litter for community service.

There have also been reductions to Ecology’s Youth Corps program, which hires hundreds of teens statewide to pick up litter. Peter Christiansen, Ecology’s section manager for the Northwest Regional Office of the Waste 2 Resources Program, estimated the program took about a 30 to 35 percent cut over the past two years.

Last summer was the first time in the Ecology Youth Corps’ 35-year run that it did not have summer crews, Christiansen said.

“Fortunately, this summer we have them back (but) not fully staffed,” he said.

Christiansen has not had a chance to take a close look at how Spacek came up with the litter scorecard. He and other state agency officials are still uncertain of the methodology behind Spacek’s evaluation of the 50 states’ policies.

“We’re a little perplexed on how Washington could have risen to be the best state as far as (being) litter-free,” Christiansen said. “We haven’t had as many people out there picking up litter, so, it confounds us.”

On top of cuts in personnel and litter crews, the department’s “Litter and it will hurt” campaign has also been suspended. Ecology will leave the campaign signs along highways in place, though, as it would be expensive to remove them, Christiansen said.

Officials hope funding will return to its previous level in the near future so they can get the campaign running again.

“We know people are not hearing the message like they did before,” he said.