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News / Clark County News

Hundreds of volunteer hours later, litter on Highway 14 is impossible to keep up with

Despite state and volunteer efforts, millions of pounds of trash land on state roads

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 29, 2024, 3:46pm
3 Photos
The Washington Department of Ecology reported that 26 million pounds of litter landed along state roads and highway interchanges in 2022.
The Washington Department of Ecology reported that 26 million pounds of litter landed along state roads and highway interchanges in 2022. (East County Citizens’ Alliance) Photo Gallery

When Madeline Lyne drives along Highway 14, her frustration is palpable.

Since moving to Camas in 2000, Lyne has watched with dread as litter increased along the road, leading Lyne and her husband to claim a segment of it through the Washington Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway program.

“If I see an issue and I don’t attend to it somehow,” she said. “It just stirs in my stomach, and I don’t feel right.”

The East County Citizens’ Alliance, a Washougal-based nonprofit Lyne volunteers with, has collected thousands of pounds of garbage along Highway 14 between Camas and Washougal since it was established in 2022.

Broken glass, plastics and sheets of foam spurred the alliance’s formation, which they debuted with a “Great Highway 14 Trash Cleanup.” The troupe of volunteers collected 400 pounds of garbage near Washougal during the 2022 event, but the issue hasn’t gone away.

“You can never get to the end of it,” said Melanie Wilson, the alliance’s co-founder and executive director.

The East County Citizens’ Alliance, which later adopted a stretch of Highway 14 between Camas and Washougal, have routinely cleaned up the route since its Great Cleanup. Hundreds of volunteer hours later, alliance members say it’s impossible to keep up with.

In 2022, almost 38 million pounds of garbage were found scattered across Washington’s roads, rest areas and state lands. Of those, 26 million pounds landed along state roads and highway interchanges, according to a Washington Department of Ecology study. Roughly 39 percent of what’s found along highways comes from unsecured loads.

State-funded programs spent 10,394 hours clearing litter across 521 miles of highways in Clark County in 2022. State workers and highway volunteers collected 339,580 pounds of garbage — the second largest amount in a Southwest Washington county, according to Washington’s latest study on litter. Thurston County topped the list with 364,716 pounds.

“We can make a difference but just for a short time, which is the problem,” Lyne said. “We’re feeling like we’re on a hamster wheel.”

A multijurisdictional issue

East County Citizens’ Alliance volunteers presented Highway 14’s litter issue to Camas and Washougal city officials, asking them to create public awareness campaigns to steer people away from adding to the trash.

But what’s found on state roads and highway interchanges, including East County Citizen Alliances’ slice of Highway 14, is under WSDOT’s purview. If Camas organized highway clean ups or litter campaigns, it would be at WSDOT’s request, said city spokesperson Bryan Rachal.

“We’re certainly aware of the litter on Highway 14, and we care very deeply about the issue,” he said to The Columbian in an email. “The city is happy to help where we can.”

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Yet state agencies are struggling to keep up.

WSDOT maintenance crews pave, fill potholes and respond to treacherous weather conditions, as well as resurface and rejoint bridges. But all the projects — those deemed necessary for public safety — are funded at 40 percent for what the agency needs to do the work, according to WSDOT spokesperson Kelly Hanahan. Landscaping, graffiti scrubbing and picking up litter are secondary.

While WSDOT’s funding dwindles, demands for maintenance crews rises.

WSDOT and Ecology spent $12 million in 2022 to collect 7.4 million pounds of litter — less than one-fifth of the total garbage that accumulates within a year.

Ecology has 12 to 14 litter crews who pick up 100 bags of litter in a single day, but trash begins to pile again. That’s why the state relies on various departments and volunteers to tidy roadways.

A heap of solutions

Ecology’s litter study posed recommendations for to reducing litter — and littering behavior.

The measures are as simple as launching educational campaigns — such as one to minimize urine-filled “trucker bottles” — or providing portable ash trays.

“We can still only pick up a small fraction of what ends up on the ground,” Hanahan said. “That means prevention is essential.”

Suggestions outlined in the report also touched upon legislative pushes, such as updated single-use item manufacturing, beverage container deposit and load securing laws. According to Wilson, these tweaks would be fundamental to keeping Washington’s landscape clean.

For example, an increase of the state’s litter tax rate on manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, currently .015 percent of an item’s selling price, could fund expanded litter programs. Revenue from the tax currently covers less than one-fifth of the estimated removal litter each year.

Lyne believes the solution can be simplified because the problem itself is avoidable. However, it hinges on a paradigm shift, one she’s wary won’t take root within the foreseeable future: Don’t litter.

“The only way anything changes is if you’re proactive,” Lyne said. “I can’t wrap my head around the lack of care. We should all play a role in keeping it the way we want it.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer