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Pandemic and ‘filthy litterbugs’ have some Michigan roads looking trashed

Adopt-A-Highway cleanups, reduced in 2020 due to the pandemic, are slated to resume next weekend in most of the Lower Peninsula.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — If it seems as though there's more trash along area roads, it’s partly because of the pandemic – and people treating the landscape like a pigsty.

Adopt-A-Highway cleanups were reduced last year and there were less volunteers, state and local officials say.

“It’s bad out there,’’ said John Richard, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Fast food trash seems to be up, which officials attribute to reduced indoor dining and increased takeout.

“I think there’s more opportunity for litter when people eat in their cars,’’ said Jerry Byrne, director of maintenance for the Kent County Road Commission. “Opportunity turns into reality with more trash.’’

The trash was particularly abundant along a stretch of northbound U.S. 131 in Grand Rapids.

Cardboard boxes and plastic grocery bags. Car parts. Fast food wrappers. A mop. A flowerpot. Several masks. There was even a bent 1976 Michigan bicentennial license plate and a chewed-up trailer plate from Louisiana.

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“It’s amazing what you find,’’ Byrne said, surveying the collection along the freeway entrance ramp at Ann Street NW.

“And this didn’t all come from the freeway; it’s the west wind,’’ he said. “Trash doesn’t always just hit the ground and stop. The wind brings some of it.’’

Trash is most apparent in late winter and early spring. Receding snow reveals what has accumulated over the winter before the grass begins to grow and covers it up.

“When the grass grows up in two weeks, you’re not going to see the trash,’’ Byrne said.

Road cleanups using volunteers are scheduled three times a year and typically result in robust turnouts. However, the pandemic changed that. The spring 2020 cleanup was cancelled and participation in summer and fall efforts was anemic.

“Participation was down because of COVID,’’ Richard said. “We hope more people come out to help; it’s an ongoing, perpetual battle.’’

As of now, spring Adopt-A-Highway and Adopt-A-Road cleanups are still slated to take place later this month. Additional dates are set for July and late September into early October.

“If we don’t get volunteers, it’s not going to be done,’’ Byrne said.

According to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s website, Adopt-A-Highway pickup dates for most of the Lower Peninsula get underway April 17 and extend through April 25.

Since 1990, Adopt-A-Highway local groups have collected more than one million bags of trash, MDOT officials say. Some 2,800 groups are participating in the program and have adopted more than 6,400 miles of Michigan highways.

“You can always unofficially volunteer by not throwing garbage out the window,’’ Richard said. “Don’t be a filthy litterbug.’’

Byrne said county road employees are busy with road maintenance and other priorities. Trash pickup, he said, is at the bottom of the list.

“Our obligation is in the center of the road out,’’ he explained. “It’s filling potholes, it’s fixing the shoulder, it’s taking care of drainage, vegetation management. Roadside beautification is the last of our responsibilities.’’

Funding is also an issue, he said.

“Our funding is down because of COVID,’’ Byrne said. “People are driving less, so vehicle registrations are down. We’re down 3% from last year. That’s $750,000 less money.’’

Kent County is working with the state on a pilot program to contract with a staffing agency to provide a limited number of workers for trash pickup, Byrne said.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find workers, he said.

“We’re competing with every Burger King, Popeyes, McDonald’s and Meijer,’’ Byrne said. “We’re competing, and we can’t get enough help.’’

Ottawa County is accepting volunteers for its first clean up of the year on April 19.

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