Don't Mess with Texas
Monday, July 26, 2010
We must stop for a moment and inhale: 18 percent of Texans smoke, and six out of 10 Texas smokers admit they litter. That means 11 percent of Texans are to blame for nearly half of all our litter. Discarded butts have now taken over first place in roadside trash, replacing food-related items such as non-alcoholic drink cups and lunch cartons. Meantime, food trash has actually decreased from 29 percent of overall litter in 2005 to 7 percent.
This change may be due to TxDOT’s anti-litter campaign which has been printing the Don’t Mess with Texas (DMWT) logo on 2 million fast food cups and renting billboards reading “It’s Take-Out, Not Toss-Out.” So we’ve stopped tossing our Starbucks cups but need some place to put our cigarette butts. I’ve got an idea. Carmakers should put a little metal receptacle, sort of a cup, in the dashboard. We’ll call it an “ashtray.”
Why should we care? Because picking up trash along our highways cost us – roll of muffled drums -- $47 million in 2009. That’s up from $38.7 million in 1986 and that doesn’t count what counties, cities and tollroad authorities spend. However, the cost per capita decreased from $2.33 per Texan in 1986 to $1.90 in 2009 because there are more us, including more who toss. We could do a lot with that $47 million, like field a better class of halfbacks or put that much-needed new roof on the Alamo.
We know a lot about litter and its cost because TxDOT hires outside companies to study who litters, with what and where. Here are a few facts from a brand new study to mull over while you toss your Styrofoam box in the bluebonnets: after cigarette butts and food-related items comes construction debris, such as cardboard and plastic. We’ve all driven along behind a pickup truck and watched as all kinds of junk blows out of the truck bed. Next are printed material like newspapers and lottery tickets. One other point: a lot of highway litter eventually gets washed into our creeks, bayous and rivers – 80 percent of litter in our waters originates from land. That costs to clean up, too.
The studies also show approximately 1.1 billion pieces of litter accumulated in 2009 on the Texas-maintained highway system. While litter increased 33 percent since 2005 (827 million items), it decreased by 11 percent since 2001 (1.237 billion items). I find that to be confusing. Alcoholic beverage containers, such as beer cans, may seem like a big trash problem, but they comprise just 6 percent of overall litter. Since 1998, age has been the key predictor of littering behavior in Texas.
New research presents a mystery: Texans aged 16 to 34 are most likely to litter, and many of them also believe that environmental issues are blown out of proportion. Yet this age group (24 percent of Texans) say they are filled with state pride and believe roadside litter makes Texans look bad. Go figure.
Thirty-seven percent of Texans believe convicts pick up most of the state's roadside litter. However, hired crews pick up 90 percent of litter. Cigarette butts take up to 25 years to decompose because of the plastic in the filter. It can take a beer bottle 1,000 years to biodegrade. When we visit museums today, we see beautiful, ancient tools and artifacts. In 3010, our descendants will hear, "If you step to your left, you'll see a discarded six-pack found outside Longview."
We are all paying for other people’s Neanderthal behavior, but I have a personal interest. During high school I spent one fun-filled summer working for the Texas Highway Department – as it was then called -- picking up litter. A dollar an hour. There was always an alternative: The Road Kill Patrol. You don't know the joys of an August afternoon on a two-lane road outside of Nowhere, Texas, shovel in hand . . . but, please, not while I'm writing.
Now a bit of background: In 1985, Texas had a big litter problem along its roadsides. It made for an unhappy median. To battle this big, expensive mess, the Texas Highway Commission launched an extensive public education campaign. Using research, it identified the state’s worst offenders and how best to reach them, and with that, DMWT came about -- the legend was born. The overall ad campaign is one of the most successful around. The number of Texans who know “Don’t Mess with Texas” means “don’t litter” recently spiked by about 20 percent. Today, eight out of 10 (82 percent) Texans know what the slogan means compared to 71 percent in 2005.
In 2004 women in a pro-choice march in Washington wore “Don’t Mess With Texas Women” T-shirts, and the slogan has been used in countless speeches, including George W’s presidential acceptance address. Indeed, DMWT is so well known that TxDOT has had to turn its lawyers loose on groups that try to hijack one form or another of the slogan for their own use. We’ve got to keep our garbage pure. The campaign has always used Texas celebrities to help spread the word, like Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Matthew McConaughey and Chuck Norris. In May, TxDOT released a new television spot featuring George Strait. Do you remember the George Foreman ad? That’s my favorite.
Finally, if you want to turn in a litterer, or just annoy an enemy, go to: http://dontmesswithtexas.org. TxDOT will send a nice note to the trash-tosser, who will probably just throw it out his car window.
Trashby litters at ashby2@comcast
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