A member of a Maine Department of Transportation roadside maintenance crew picking up litter beside the interstate in Fairfield, drains the liquid from the can before placing it in a trash bag. Alcoholic beverage cans are one of the most common types of trash found beside the interstate in Maine. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

During spring in Maine, songbirds return. Trees blossom. Rivers swell. And the sun melts the snow and ice from the landscape, revealing heaps of roadside trash.

Litter, accumulated throughout the long winter and buried by snowstorms, lines Maine roadways each April. During a season of renewal and budding life, this sight of plastic bags tangled in bushes and culverts clogged with bottles can be especially discouraging. But in a matter of weeks, much of it disappears.

Each year, state- and town-funded crews pick up roadside litter by hand, and along the way, they form theories about where it all comes from and how this build-up of trash might be prevented.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

“Most people agree that litter sucks. Nobody likes to look at it,” said Beau Goodale, a transportation crew leader for the Maine Department of Transportation. “It’s one of those jobs where we actually get a ‘thanks, guys.’”

The Maine DOT spends about $500,000 annually to remove litter from beside Maine’s interstates. That number has remained fairly stable in recent years, according to Bob Moosmann, transportation operations manager for the DOT. In comparison, the Ohio DOT spends about $4 million each year on litter removal.

“I don’t see it as a huge issue or a major expense for us to deal with,” Moosmann said.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Nevertheless, it does cost Maine taxpayers money. And beyond the interstate, litter removal is the responsibility of municipalities and residents.

“Obviously there are some people out there that don’t care,” Goodale said, “because they’re still throwing stuff out their windows.”

A day in the ditch

“We pick up as much as we can,” said Dan Sinclair of Albion, who has helped clear Maine interstates of litter as a DOT employee for the past 18 years. He also plows snow during the winter, and he works on various construction projects during the summer.

“This job gets us in shape for the season,” Sinclair said. “After we walk these banks all day, our bodies tell us that we did. It works out good that way. And we get good fresh air.”

In Maine, the DOT does the majority of its litter removal in the spring, before the grass grows tall. This is because large pieces of litter, hidden in the grass, can damage the department’s lawn mowers. In the process, they remove a major eyesore for travelers and help keep the environment clean and healthy.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

“We like to get it done before Memorial Day,” Sinclair said. “After that, we have all the traffic coming up to ‘Vacationland,’ what we pride ourselves in. Everybody comes up here for a good time, and they don’t wanna come up to a dump.”

While clearing the landscape of trash can be rewarding, the chore is far from glamorous. They wear safety glasses and hard hats to shield them from rocks and debris kicked up by passing vehicles. They carry a tick removal kit and ointment for poison ivy. And they’re often wrestling with invasive brambles and vines.

“You don’t want to snag your [trash] bag,” DOT employee Brian Tibbetts of Waterville said. “Then you’ll be picking up your garbage twice — excuse me, everybody else’s garbage twice.”

Roadside riches

Fast food containers, plastic bags and bottles and cans are among the most common types of litter the DOT finds along the interstate. But there are plenty of other items that people toss out their windows or lose unintentionally while speeding down the road.

“I-95 will provide,” said Sinclair, echoing a saying coined by a former DOT employee. “Years ago we used to have a tool box pretty much full just from stuff we collected off the interstate.”

Tools and construction materials are common finds, as are clipboards, which Sinclair thinks comes from delivery truck drivers and salespeople who forget them on top of their vehicles.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Whole bags of trash and recyclables, which likely fall off trucks headed to the dump, are also common.

There are also unsanitary and hazardous items.

“You don’t even want to know the weird stuff we find on the side of the interstate,” Goodale said.

On a recent day, the crew found a pile of syringes in the grass of an interstate off-ramp. To dispose of them safely, they placed them in a Gatorade bottle, which has thick plastic walls that the needles can’t penetrate. The discovery, Goodale said, isn’t uncommon. They also find drugs on occasion, which need to be disposed of by police.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Another eye-opening item they find a lot of are beer containers, Goodale said. Litter clean-up crews can often predict what type of beer can they’ll find depending on the exit, year after year, which indicates to them that a local resident is the culprit.

“It’s crazy how many people drink and drive and throw them out the windows,” Goodale said. “We try to recycle the bottles. Some of them we can’t, they’re just too far gone, and the rest of it goes to the landfill, but it’s better than being out here.”

How bad is it?

The Maine DOT doesn’t weight or measure the amount of roadside litter it collects each year, but it does keep track of the amount of money it takes to remove that litter, and in recent years, that number has remained fairly steady. So while the litter seen on the roadsides each spring can be shocking, it doesn’t appear to be getting any worse.

“I think here in Maine, litter used to be much more of a problem back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Moosmann said.

In 1971, Maine enacted the “Maine Litter Control Act,” to help curb littering throughout the state. That act led to laws that make littering a civil offense with a fine of between $100 and $500, and subsequent offenses can be fined between $500 and $1,000 (for litter that’s less than 15 pounds or 27 cubic feet). In addition, municipalities may adopt more stringent litter ordinances or laws.

Also, in 1978, the Maine “Bottle Bill” program was established and evolved into successful recycling program that gave Mainers a monetary incentive to save and recycle their bottles. This resulted in a dramatic reduction of the number of cans and bottles found along the roadside, Moosmann said.

Nevertheless, plenty of beverage bottles are being tossed from car windows. A couple of years ago, a company contracted by the DOT to pick up litter on a section of the Maine interstate made about $2,000 by returning the bottles they collected.

“Apparently they had a Christmas party with the money,” Moosmann said.

And on just one interstate exit in the spring, it’s not uncommon to fill up three truck beds with bags of trash, Goodale said.

“If I was going to put out a public announcement I’d ask for people’s cooperation with retaining any stuff they’d be tempted to throw out their vehicles. To not do it. To take it home and dispense of it properly,” Moosmann said. “I think that’d be a worthwhile campaign.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...