Roadside Litter: The Great American Beverage Crisis

By Liesl Clark

Our nearest store is less than a mile away. Occasionally, my kids and I take a walk there so they can have an ice cream. We run down a long hill which is our road and always bring a bag to collect the roadside trash. Each time we do this, we pick up more than 100 beverage containers. What kind, you might ask?

Beverage Containers Picked Up on Just One Side of the Road. Photo © Liesl Clark

Beverage Containers Picked Up on Just One Side of the Road. Photo © Liesl Clark

We find glass bottles including large and mini wine bottles, aluminum cans, box wine, plastic water and soda bottles, plastic cups with lids and straws, and single-use coffee cups. Why do we Americans toss our drink containers out of our cars, onto our roadsides? More importantly, why the need to have a drink while driving? If you’re on a long road trip, I can understand why you’d have a beverage by your side. But we live on an island 2 miles wide by 6 miles long and no single trip is very long. Why is the car the place where beverages must be consumed and then discarded? Surely, the beverages are not coming from pedestrians.

We Filled Our Bag With Bottles and Cans in a Matter of Minutes. Photo © Liesl Clark

We Filled Our Bag With Bottles and Cans in a Matter of Minutes. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Keep America Beautiful campaign conducted a study of 240 roadways across the country and determined that there are approximately 6,729 pieces of litter per mile of roadway (on each side) in the United States. My road is certainly no exception and we could likely come up with that many pieces of litter along our little roadside. The study also found that the majority of roadside litter comes from motorists (53%) with pedestrians contributing some 23%.

My theory is that it’s less about the car and more about the road’s proximity to a convenience store. Since we’re a little less than a mile from the nearest shop stocked with juices, sodas, coffee, and alcohol, our road is hit with the litter from those who’ve just purchased a convenient drink. The Keep America Beautiful study found that roads near a convenience store tended to have 11% more litter. No surprise. And beverages figure high in the overall item percentages.

Here’s the depressing statistic: 40 – 60% of roadside waste comes from beverage containers. Why? We live in a country where tap water is readily available and quite drinkable. If you’re not convinced, go to any developing country and you’ll see how water out of a tap can threaten your life. Most of those containers are also recyclable, so if recycling were truly working in our great nation, we wouldn’t see any drink containers on our roadsides, right? The Environmental Working Group published a study that claims, “Every 27 hours Americans consume enough bottled water to circle the entire equator with plastic bottles stacked end to end.”

Litter, furthermore, costs taxpayers a hefty sum each year. According to the Keep America Beautiful stats on roadside litter, litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year.

Perhaps we need to require that each state has a bottle bill. At Oregon.gov, the statistics for the state’s beverage containers found along roadsides since the introduction of a bottle bill there are impressive: “In 1971, litter control was a primary reason for initiating the bottle bill.  Since then, the percentage of beverage containers among roadside litter has dropped from 40 percent to 6 percent.”

Kicking the convenience store single-use beverage fix is likely the best step an individual who wants to make a difference can take. That’s what I’ve done. When you discover the environmental impact of single-use beverage containers on the environment, a.k.a. the amount of energy , toxins, and virgin materials needed to produce that bottle or can that will likely go unrecycled, you might reconsider the need for that beverage. Bring your own bottle and fill ‘er up at the tap. Water is what your body needs. Save the wine and beer for your home, or dinner with friends, not your car. And if you’ve been out with your buddies and just want to get that stash of wine and beer out of your car to cut the clutter, find a dumpster or recycle bin, they’re usually right next to the convenience store where you bought the wine in the first place.

We Were Able to Recycle These Right Across From the Convenience Store. Photo © Liesl Clark

We Were Able to Recycle These Right Across From the Convenience Store. Photo © Liesl Clark

Single-use beverages and their containers are only benefiting the companies who manufacture them. American kids are over-consuming over-sweetened single-serving drinks and we have a juvenile obesity crisis to prove it. Who can blame kids, when according to FatSmack.org, in 2008, Coca-Cola spent over $2.67 billion in advertising? Kids are their prime target.

My 9-Year-Old, Picking Up Your Wine and Beer Bottles Next to Our Driveway. Photo © Liesl Clark

My 9-Year-Old, Picking Up Your Wine and Beer Bottles Next to Our Driveway. Photo © Liesl Clark

At Trash Backwards, we’re the go-to site for reduce, reuse, regift, repair, rethink and recycle information about every item found in our waters and roadside ditches. We developed our app to address the environmental crisis of too much plastic on our shorelines. You’ll notice that we consider recycling a last resort for your stuff as recycling requires more virgin materials to actually close the loop for things like plastic. We’re more about the other R’s, especially reducing and reusing. Reducing means refusing single-use disposables, taking action to pick up those that we find in the environment and bringing attention to them so others see their impact. Help curb our collective disposables habit by refusing them in the first place. Then move on to the next R and keep your reusable cup and bottle with you in your car for yet another laudable and sustainable R: Refill.

Klean Kanteen BPA-Free Water Bottles with custom The North Face Logo

Want more resources to help you help others reduce the single-use beverage habit? Please visit our Trash Backwards app where inputting “plastic bottles” will give you further reduce, reuse and recycle ideas. If you scroll down to “Need to Know” you’ll find some interesting reading:

Resources at Trash Backwards on Plastic Bottles and Their Environmental Impact

Resources at Trash Backwards on Plastic Bottles and Their Environmental Impact

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Categories: Mapping Plastic, Plastic-Free Living, Recycle, Reduce Your Use, Think About It, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff

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6 Comments on “Roadside Litter: The Great American Beverage Crisis”

  1. Suzanne
    January 23, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    My cousins lived in Portland OR and my Uncle was a bottle picker extraordinaire. We rode in the back of his pickup truck and every time he spied a bottle or can, he stopped and it was us kids job to hop out and claim the item. He turned them in for cash. I have always thought a bottle bill would be the best solution. Bottles and cans are labeled and there is incentive for everyone, especially kids to turn them in for a little spending money. it seems like a win/win situation.

    • January 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Hi Suzanne. I have memories of collecting cans and bottles in Vermont when I went to camp there. We loved the extra candy money it afforded us. My grandmother, if I recall this right, was instrumental in passing the bottle bill in Connecticut years ago. And my mom, in Massachusetts, carries on the family tradition and buys herself an ice cream every time she redeems her bottles and cans. Love that.
      — Liesl at Trash Backwards

  2. January 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on SoCal's Electronics Recycling Resource.

  3. January 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Wow. I thought we had a lot of trash around here, but our roads aren’t nearly as bad as yours. We do have a spike at certain times of the year with the university. Homecoming is one of those times everyone has to pick things up, but normally I only spot a few bottles tossed on the side of the road. What I do find instead are empty cigarette packages and the cigarette butts, they far outweigh the drink containers.

    We ditched the single use bottles for our refillable water bottles. The little ones are always quick to ask if we have our water before heading out. We have a problem around here where many of the convenience stores and fast food establishments have built enclosures around their dumpsters because they don’t want to have people using their dumpsters for personal waste. My son many years back, having been raised not to litter had an empty beverage container while walking around town with a friend. He spotted a garbage can by the curb and knowing that in our family we would rather someone use our can to get rid of something than toss in in our yard proceeded to put his bottle in the can. The homeowner came out to scream at him for doing so. My son did remove his container per their request, but held firm and asked the owner if he would rather have to pick up wastes tossed in his yard?

    • January 23, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      I thought our roads were litter-free, too. But walking our rural roadsides has opened my eyes. Your son was right to try to throw his empty beverage container in a trash can. Some people are really proprietary about their trash (cans)!

      • January 23, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

        They really are, I agreed with my son, carrying it around town would be silly when there was a place he could put it without littering, of course this was before we had recycling available in our area.

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