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On this 52nd annual Earth Day, what is the state of litter in Virginia?

Julius Huggins
Julius Huggins is the President of MECA, a civic association in Chesterfield County. He and his group meet bi-weekly to pick up litter along Hopkins Road. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)
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Ron Guye
Ron Guye, who recently had a stroke, still comes out every two weeks to pick up litter. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)
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Glen Besa
Glen Besa of MECA was also on hand picking up trash along Hopkins Road. Before he retired he worked for the Sierra Club as an environmentalist. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)
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On a recent, chilly Saturday morning in early April, Julius B. Huggins is unloading thick orange trash bags from the back of his SUV. The bags match the equally bright orange tips of the grabber sticks he’ll hand out to whoever shows up to help.

Huggins is familiar with this stretch of Hopkins Road in Chesterfield County, which juts out from the Chippenham Parkway, hugs the Meadowbrook Country Club and flows into his neighborhood, Meadowbrook Estates. And it’s not just because he lives here. He and his neighbors pick up trash along this road every other weekend - they’ve been at it for over three years.

“We try to keep our neighborhood clean, safe and secure,” says Huggins, who’s wearing a neon red mesh vest with reflectors and his name hand-printed across the chest. “We don't want anybody's first impression to be a lot of litter when they drive up in here.” 

Julius Huggins
Julius B. Huggins shows off one of the many finds found near Meadowbrook Golf Club. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Huggins, the current president of the Meadowbrook Estates Civic Association, says his group understands the county can only do so much when it comes to picking up trash. 

“The county needs help. We live here, and we know it’s part of our responsibility to keep the neighborhood clean,” he says. “And it's a good example that we set for adults and kids. We all benefit. It's a win-win.”

For almost 70 years, Virginia has been waging a campaign against litter. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money go toward clearing trash from roadways each year, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Fines for littering have gone up in recent years as did the litter tax for businesses. Plus, there are a handful of state and local collection initiatives like Adopt-a-Highway, and civic groups like MECA meet regularly to pick up trash. 

But do any of these efforts make a difference?

“I think it's gotten way worse,” says Tracey Leverty of Keep Virginia Beautiful. “I think we may have more efforts out there cleaning up. But the real crux of the problem really isn't just changes in generational behavior.”

Leverty, who’s the environmental programs director for the nonprofit, says much of the influx of  litter comes from the manufacturing side, driven by the nonstop pace of new consumer goods and, more directly, the packaging around those products.

“Every year, there's a new plastic thing, there's a new mold that goes around an earbud, or a thing that's new,” Leverty says. “So when you produce that much disposable, unusable crap and [keep] expounding on it, how can it not increase?”

According to Keep Virginia Beautiful, “Consumer markets continue to grow and, in the U.S. alone, over 30,000 new consumer packaged goods [and] products are launched every year, each with new and largely disposable packaging.”

That’s not a new problem. In fact, the proliferation of single-use plastic containers was the initial inspiration for founding Keep America Beautiful, of which KVB is an affiliate. Beverage and packaging industry groups kickstarted the anti-litter campaign to preempt legislative efforts at reducing single-use packaging.

graphic with facts about litter
Huggins litter
Huggins picks up trash along the median on Hopkins Road. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Dipping into his bag with the orange-tipped grabber, Huggins pulls out some of the items he’s  collected and sees on a regular basis.

“Here is a Chick-fil-A bag. I have a cardboard box that somebody probably just threw out, a lot of grocery bags and looks like [some] paper towels,” Huggins says. 

He says many of the items are most likely driven by wind from the strip mall across the street that holds a Walmart and some fast food chains. Experts say the amount of littered foodchart showing what types of litter can be found in Virginia trash is rising.

“There is no doubt that the amount of single-use food and beverage packaging increased during COVID-19 as restaurants shifted to more take-out dining,” says Katie Register, Executive Director of Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University.

Register also says the pandemic introduced new litter into the environment.

 “Volunteers during litter cleanups also started to find PPEs -- mostly masks and gloves,” she says. “It is tragic that so many of these single-use items end up being disposed of incorrectly -- by people who litter or through poor waste management practices.”

What’s the cost of litter? And who’s paying it?

VDOT says nearly $3.5 million in taxpayer money is spent each year to clean up litter on Virginia’s roadways. 

Leverty says that cost is so high partly because the state collects relatively little from businesses to help pick up litter that often comes from their establishments. Known as the litter tax, the state collects between $20 and $50 from every “manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor and retailer of products” per location.

Leverty says those charges to businesses are not enough.

“It's been very imbalanced for a long time,” Leverty says. “It's the same for Walmart as it is for McDonald's as it is for CVS. It doesn't matter what size it is, it doesn't matter how much trash you produce or what kind of trash you produce, it's the same across the board.”

The tax collected goes back to the localities the businesses operate in, Leverty says, to help pay contractors to pick up the litter. 

But it’s “a drop in the bucket,” Leverty says because “it’s all about platistics and convenience.”

“Nobody [is] willing to think that it's serious enough to charge people,” Leverty says. “ I mean, I just can't imagine if the cops really wanted to make some money. They could pop people for littering and be loaded. That's all I'm saying. That seems like easy money.”

Dumping litter is illegal in Virginia. It’s a Class 1 misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to 12 months in jail. Plus, the minimum fine for littering was bumped by lawmakers in 2021; fines now range from $500 up to $2500.  

But fines are rarely issued. 

According to WRIC, 18 people in Henrico County were fined for littering in 2019 and only six people were fined in 2020. In Chesterfield County, there were 11 arrests in 2019 and four arrests in 2020 for dumping trash.

Table showing arrests
Only 36 people have been arrested and charges with dumping trash in Chesterfield County since 2018. (Table courtesy of Chesterfield County)

Statewide Clean Up Efforts

The effort to clean up Virginia roadways started in 1953 when the national “Don’t Be a Litterbug” slogan was adopted - in response to a Vermont law that banned single-use glass bottles - and the Virginia Anti-Litterbug Council was formed. The purpose of this organization was “to encourage the proper disposal of empty containers and all other forms of trash that mar Virginia highways, farms, and public places,” according to Keep Virginia Beautiful. 

Over the years, new campaigns cropped up both nationally and locally to encourage community litter pick up. The state got involved when lawmakers passed the Virginia Litter Control Act, which allocated money to fund the Division of Litter Control; then in 1988, the Virginia Department of Transportation created the Adopt-a-Highway program.

VDOT says that nearly 18,000 Adopt-a-Highway volunteers collect more than 25,000 bags of waste along Virginia’s highways each year. “It is estimated that these efforts save the commonwealth over $1.35 million that would have otherwise gone to clean up Virginia’s roads.”

litter sign
Litter signage near Midlothian Turnpike in Midlothian. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Sporadically placed along many Virginia roads and highways are the Adopt-a-Highway signs. In order to get a name on a sign, a business, local group or individual is supposed to physically pick up trash along a two-mile stretch of road at least twice a year for three years. VDOT provides the trash bags and safety vests. 

But Leverty says that for years, initiatives like the Adopt-a-Highway campaign have been somewhat ineffective in helping keep Virginia litter free. She says when she first started about five years ago, there were inherent problems with how the permits were maintained. 

“Number one is that system…they had a lot of dead permits,” Leverty says. “When we first came on, they had over, I want to say 16,000 permits in their system, and quickly and easily 10,000 were purged because they hadn't been active or reported a cleanup in more than 10 years.”

Basically, Leverty says people weren’t reporting to VDOT whether or not they were keeping up with their adopted highway. She says signs are supposed to be removed if the litter isn't picked up on a regular basis.

“There was no repercussion for not doing your end of the bargain,” she says. “You need to pick up two times before the sign goes up. [But] it was very common for lots of folks to, you know, get a sign for marketing purposes, and then not do anything about it.”

Leverty says coordinators from around the state spent hundreds of hours on the phone calling businesses and people asking, “Are you active? Do you want to be active?”

“It was a mess,” she says. 

Since the permits were purged and organized, Leverty says they now have somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 active groups picking up trash along the roadways. She says it’s great to see companies who do have signage hold trash pick up days.

“They turn it into an employee engagement activity. It's great to get out there and get some vitamin D and some exercise and see a visible difference,” Leverty says.

VDOT has also placed approximately 800 anti-littering signs beside roads statewide, including about 50 in the Richmond area. Officials say this tally does not include Adopt-a-Highway or Beautify Virginia signs.

“VDOT considers these signs a useful tool in helping to discourage littering. They also help to minimize the time our road crews and Adopt-a-Highway partners spend picking up litter alongside active traffic,” says a spokesperson for VDOT.

Table detailing Adopt-a-Highway collections
A chart detailing how much litter is collect by the Adopt-a-Highway program in Chesterfield County. (Chart courtesy of Chesterfield County)

COUNTY EFFORTS

Litter removal is not just a statewide effort. Counties like Chesterfield also devote time, money and resources to combating trash. While VDOT tries to maintain state roads, it’s up to individual counties and cities to oversee their own roads.

“There's thousands of miles of roadway in Chesterfield County that has to be maintained,” says Ted Barclay, special projects manager in the county’s Community Enhancement Department. “It’s a never ending process because when you clear an area, within a couple of months, the litter returns and it becomes very difficult to keep after it.”

To try and “keep after it,” Barclay says his department uses multiple resources like their Adopt-A-Spot program, which mirrors the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program, and Take Care of Your Square, which helps local communities or subdivisions – like Huggins of MECA – organize litter pick up events.

“Because the best way to take care of litter is not to have litter in the first place,” Barclay says.

Barclay says Chesterfield residents can even contact his office to let them know where large littered objects - like a discarded mattress - are and they’ll come pick it up.

Chart showing Adopt-A-Spot collections
A chart detailing how much litter is collect by the Adopt-A-Spot program in Chesterfield County. (Chart courtesy of Chesterfield County)

Barclay also works with Chesterfield’s Sheriff department, which oversees incarcerated residents who work to clear high litter areas, such as U.S. Highway 1, in exchange for shortened sentences. Citizens can also agree to pick up trash in various areas as a way to complete community service hours to pay off fines. 

“We pick up tons and tons of litter through all these programs,” says Barclay.

chart showing sheriff's workforce collections
A chart detailing how much litter is collect by the sheriff's workforce program in Chesterfield County. (Chart courtesy of Chesterfield County)

Back on Hopkins Road in Chesterfield, only two other MECA members joined Julius B. Huggins this Saturday morning to help him pick up trash – including Ron Guye, who Huggins says is “one of my fiercest warriors. He's always here on deck, ready to go no matter what the weather is.” 

Guye says despite having a stroke two years ago, he still wants to come out to help.

“I just feel like I gotta do something,” Guye says.

Huggins says the number of volunteers goes up and down depending on the weather and what other people are doing that day.

“It's a voluntary thing. And it's all designed to keep our community looking good,” Huggins says. “It pays a dividend. It's no better feeling when we're done when we look back and see how clean it looks.”

The 52nd Earth Day is Friday, April 22. Now through June, Keep Virginia Beautiful is sponsoring events known as the Great Virginia Cleanup to encourage community trash pick up.