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Don’t Mess With My Bit of Texas

Litter crusader bends but won’t break when it comes to those who give his roadways the cold shoulder

My call to trash action started with the television: a big, old tube TV someone had dumped at the side of a dead-end road in my neighborhood.

I’d passed it at least twice a week on jogging jaunts, each time thinking: Someone should do something about that. After several trips past the eyesore, it dawned on me: You should be that someone.

I enlisted a friend and drove the mile or so from my house to the derelict appliance. He helped me hoist it into the pickup bed, and we dismantled it and disposed of it in my garbage can.

My reward was a few bites from the fire ants that had taken up residence inside the TV and the feeling that I’d done something good. Not much of a reward, but I didn’t have to look at the broken hulk anymore.

I credit Archimedes with the rest. He’s the family dog who is at his happiest walking on the end of a leash. On our many sojourns through the rural subdivision in which I live, I started noticing litter everywhere. And, after the experience with the TV, it started to bother me.

So I began picking it up, at first just a few soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers and cigarette packages at a time. I’d fill the pockets of my shorts with as much garbage as they could hold.

I made steady progress, the roadside ditches becoming a little less cluttered as Archimedes and I got our daily exercise.

I’d dump the trash in our can, take the accumulated aluminum cans to a Kiwanis Club drop-off and tote the rest to a recycling center.

But there was still plenty of trash out there.

So I started carrying along a plastic shopping bag on each walk, filling it with debris, sometimes finding curious scraps of someone’s life: a Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo parking pass, a plastic doll brush, bits of multicolored electrical wire, a photograph of three smiling people and a Chihuahua.

How did this end up on the roadside? I would wonder when I bent over to collect a scrap. Was it deliberately tossed out? Did it blow out of a truck bed? Did it get loose from a garbage can?

Some answers might come from the Texas Department of Transportation, which, through its Don’t Mess With Texas campaign, commissions studies that look at the people who litter and what types of trash are found beside the state’s roadways.

A 2009 survey found that 42 percent of 1,255 driving-aged respondents said they had littered, either intentionally or accidentally, in the month before the survey was taken. About a third of the litter they admitted to tossing was small pieces of paper or food items. About a quarter of those said the littering was accidental—either the litter flew out of the window or out of a pickup bed.

Whether accidental or not, that junk gunks up the roadside—to the tune of 1.1 billion pieces of litter a year—including cigarette butts, which accounted for 36 percent of that total—almost 400 million of the nasty little things.

TxDOT estimated these numbers in the 2009 Visible Litter Survey. The survey involved crews performing intense litter pickup on 1,000-foot segments of roadway at 163 sites around the state and identifying each piece of litter, down to brand name (there are a lot of Marlboro smokers and Bud Light drinkers out there).

In a state that prides itself on freedom and individualism, there apparently is not an abundance of personal responsibility—at least where litter is concerned.

Overall, littering is up over the previous survey, taken in 2005. But when you factor out tobacco litter (butts and packaging), littering has actually dropped. This drop comes despite an increase in the number of miles driven, which is a factor in creating more roadside trash.

There’s no shortage of it, though. At least in my experience.

I didn’t set out to be a litter crusader; I’m just one guy who got tired of seeing his piece of Texas being messed with. And some days, when yet another can or bottle or plastic cup appears in my path, I wonder why I even bother.

Too many people just don’t care or are oblivious to the problem.

But then I find that I just can’t help myself. So I pick up the empty plastic water bottle and the stray bits of cardboard and the foam McDonald’s cup emblazoned with the message “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

There’s plenty of mess in Texas. But not as much in my neck of the woods these days.

Kevin Hargis, food editor