Every weekday morning, I walk past a varied collection of litter on a 100-yard stretch of highway behind my apartment complex in Rosslyn. I never have to choose between paper and plastic: There is plenty of both. Some pieces of litter -- particularly glass, plastic, and metal -- become semi-permanent fixtures in the landscape. Other pieces -- mostly paper -- are transient and stop for only a day or two before blowing off to litter some other roadway. Occasionally, I'll see something unusual, such as the large white Muscovy duck that a vehicle had reduced from three dimensions to two.
I hitchhike to work from an on-ramp to the Roosevelt Bridge. Some mornings, as I am standing on the shoulder of the road, I feel like a baseball player who cannot get his feet planted in the batter's box. Small pebbles of broken glass are all over the pavement and not even the excellent tread on my shoes provides much traction.
I have long had a strong antipathy for litter. As a birdwatcher, I often take hikes deep into the woods, sometimes through very thick brush. Even if I have to claw my way through sticker bushes for 10 minutes to reach a seemingly inaccessible spot, I invariably will find a discarded beer can when I arrive.
A few weeks ago, I decided that rather than shaking my head in disgust each day as I walked past all the trash, I would do something about it. Early one Sunday morning, I grabbed three large plastic garbage bags, a pair of gardening gloves, a dustpan, and a tiny plastic shovel, and I picked up most of the trash from my stretch of highway. I also brought a pen and notebook so I could record an inventory of what I found.
Surveying the trash turned out to be more of a learning experience than I expected. For example, I found a rubber floor mat from the front passenger seat of a Ford. The mat, which appeared to be relatively new, was already three-quarters buried in the dirt.
I found shards of glass of many different colors: green, brown, blue, orange, white and clear. Many were from bottles, but there also were remnants of a dinner plate and a water tumbler. The sizes of the shards varied, depending on the amount of traffic passing over. Because the on-ramp curves to the right, vehicles are more likely to swing wide to the right than wide to the left. Hence, the shards on the right shoulder tend to get run over and ground up more. The shards eventually sink into the environment.
Cigarette butts are almost as profuse as glass shards. There are hundreds of them all over the highway. Picking up all of them would have taken hours. I guess smokers don't think of a cigarette butt as litter. Other smoker contributions to the scenery were an empty matchbook, the cellophane and foil from cigarette packs, and many pieces of the fibrous material from cigarette filters.
Junk-food junkies are major contributors to highway trash. I found a lot of candy wrappers, fast-food litter, and fragments of soft-drink and beer cans and bottles. I found the cellophane wrapper from something made by Interstate Brands Corp. whose ingredients included a long list of chemicals that I'm glad I didn't have to ingest. The only examples of non-junk-food products were a skim milk container and part of a cup of yogurt. I did find an advertising flyer for some miracle high-fiber low-fat cookies made with 100 percent organic cane juice that allowed someone named Melissa in D.C. to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.
In the Coke vs. Pepsi competition, Coke was more popular among the area "litterati" by a three-to-one margin. The "litterati" also drink products by Canada Dry and Cragmont.
The gum chewers seem to care about tooth decay, because the two wrappers I found were from Trident and Care-Free Sugarless. The candy eaters don't care nearly as much about their teeth, discarding wrappers from Reese's Pieces, Hershey's Kisses, and M&Ms (both plain and peanut). From those who believe "candy is dandy but liquor is quicker," I found parts of cans or bottles of Budweiser, Michelob, Old Milwaukee, and Schlitz Malt Liquor.
The oddest organic objects I found were 40 pork neck bones. One theory is that the bones were the remains from herds of feral pigs that used to roam the highways of Arlington. These pigs may have ultimately fallen prey to packs of dogs that had been turned loose and become wild after most of the large apartment complexes in Rosslyn began to prohibit pets. A more plausible explanation is that a box of pork neck bones fell from a delivery truck. I remember how they looked the day after they landed on the road. As if watching time-lapse photography, I observed the progress of their decay for about a month. They never smelled bad, but they changed from their original reddish-pink color to a muddy brown -- similar to the progression of colors from raw to cooked pork. When I shoveled them into my trash bag, I noticed that small feathers from the two-dimensional Muscovy duck had stuck to a few of the neck bones.
Moving to the realm of the inorganic, car junk was strewed all over the place, especially strips of black rubber from blown-out tires. I found a discarded wiper blade, part of a spark plug, a small piece of metal from a tire rim, and instructions for a "Precision Alternator and Starter." There were many pieces of unidentifiable twisted metal. I also found a parking ticket and the stub from a parking lot.
The final major category of trash came from businesses and offices. I found everything from a ballpoint pen to a real estate contract for the purchase of a $90,000 property in Rockville. The ballpoint had somehow migrated to Rosslyn from the Anne Arundel Medical Center, and despite the long journey, it still worked. I found a brochure for an Amway water purifier, and a flyer for a water sport shop in Alexandria. The high-tech trash included the borders from spool-fed computer paper and a couple of thin plastic wires used for holding spool-fed computer paper in folders.
Altogether, I collected about 15 pounds of trash. It hasn't taken long, however for a new array of litter to accumulate.
Someday, I'll probably get out my gardening gloves and little plastic shovel and go gather litter on the highway again. William Young A Piece of Highway to Call Your Own Maryland and Virginia have established adopt-a-highway programs, where people take responsibility for cleaning and policing a specific stretch of highway at least four times a year.
About 800 groups, including Scout troops, sororities and fraternities and major corporations, for example, have signed up in Maryland and Northern Virginia. Virginia even encourages individuals and families to participate. Both states post signs naming the volunteers along their adopted piece of roadway.
To participate: In Maryland, 1-800-222-5943; Northern Virginia, (703) 934-7350.