Rubber tires, dead cats, Styrofoam cups, old refrigerators, hamburger wrappers, sheet metal, roofing shingles, Kewpie dolls, scrap lumber, auto parts -- you name it, it's strewn along the interstate highway from Washington to Baltimore.
Just ask Ed Wrzesinski, trash connoisseur and head of the Maryland State Highway Administration's efforts in suburban Washington to pick up after the great American slob.
The never-ending task follows the trail of debris left by those among the 90,000 to 120,000 motorists who daily use I-95 from the Capital Beltway to the Howard County line.
"It doesn't happen by itself," said Wrzesinski. "It doesn't come from space. It comes from motorists."
Those motorists, plus untold thousands of additional drivers, passengers, trash haulers and assorted road users who ply the other 800 miles of state roads in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, dump an estimated 3,600 to 7,200 tons of debris each year along the roadside, according to Wrzesinski.
The cleanup cost the public $646,000 last year alone in labor, equipment and dumping fees, he added.
The problem of highway trash pickup is universal, say highway officials in the District of Columbia and suburban Virginia. In the District alone, for example, work crews picked up 14,000 tons of assorted trash on 1,102 miles of streets and roads in fiscal 1984, said D.C. Environmental Services Department spokesman William Goodman.
"We spent $51,000 just on the Beltway section of I-95 in Prince George's County , and you couldn't even tell we were there," said Wrzesinski. "It's impossible."
Wrzesinski has a lot to say about trash:
"Once a bag of trash falls out of a truck or car, it explodes like a bomb and breaks all over the place."
And, "We got roads here with 120,000 to 130,000 vehicles a day. If 10 percent of them have one little piece of litter fall out -- be it a cigarette pack or a hamburger wrapper -- you've got 12,000 pieces of litter laying out there."
And, "You can almost tell how far you are from a fast food place by the hamburger wrappers on the road."
And, "Cleanup is very labor intensive. It takes a human being to throw trash out, and it takes a human being to pick it up."
As assistant district engineer for maintenance in the State Highway Administration's office in Greenbelt, Wrzesinski said that efforts by environmental groups and anti-littering laws have not reduced the amount of trash thrown on the highways. To fight this battle, he commands a modest army of full- and part-time trash picker-uppers who patrol Washington's close-in suburban Maryland counties. Recent additional state funds have made it possible for Wrzesinski to have not only two full-time cleanup crews each in Prince George's and Montgomery counties but also about 20 temporary employes, 15 students this summer and a six- to eight-man prison crew in each county from the state Division of Correction.
Armed with shovels, pointed sticks and bright yellow state highway dump trucks, crew members daily plod along the shoulders of I-95 and other roads, stabbing, dragging and heaving trash with Sisyphean resignation.
"We're just picking up the big stuff," said Frank Manago, 32, of Jessup, driver for a three-man crew scouting the Beltway for spilled lumber, packing boxes and scrap iron near Rte. 50 recently. "If we stopped for every piece of paper, we wouldn't get around the next bend."
As Manago maneuvered the truck along the shoulder and a ceaseless stream of cars zoomed by, crew members Clarence Workman and Thomas Lee Howard jumped from the cab to pick up discarded inner tubes, truck tire treads, a queen-sized mattress, tar paper, an auto muffler, metal strips, rusting auto license plates and plastic bags filled with assorted junk.
At one point, the men came upon a dead cat. Howard dug a shallow grave, and Workman dropped the animal in unceremoniously. Cats and dogs often are found dead along the Beltway, usually lost or stray animals that become hit-and-run victims, Workman said. "We buried a fox the other day," he said.
While motorists in passenger cars contribute their share of trash, Wrzesinski said, "the biggest problem are the big trucks," especially trucks carrying debris from construction sites. If the trucks are not properly covered, "They drop everything from broken concrete to underbrush on the road," he said.
Worse still are the people who deliberately drive out on the highway and dump unwanted bulk items -- "old washing machines, mattresses, sofas, roofing shingles," Wrzesinski said. "They do it at night. They do it in the day . . . even on the open interstate. They don't care. They know nobody will report them."