Our Opinion: Pandemic produces a litter epidemic on Wilson roadsides
Stock photo | Pixabay
Plastic soda bottles, fast-food wrappers, cardboard, crumpled receipts and even full-size garbage bags stuffed with household trash clutter the shoulders and medians along Wilson’s highways.
Roadside litter is rearing its ugly head, and Wilson County residents are taking notice. Bill Jeffrey’s letter to the editor in Tuesday’s edition drew five comments on WilsonTimes.com and 43 comments on the Times’ Facebook page. The consensus is unanimous: This problem appears to be growing, and something must be done to clean our community’s trash-strewn roads.
While the ever-present litter does Wilson’s image no favors, it isn’t only a local phenomenon. The COVID-19 pandemic cratered North Carolina’s gas tax and Division of Motor Vehicles revenue, resulting in N.C. Department of Transportation budget shortfalls estimated in the hundreds of millions. In response, the NCDOT pared back its road maintenance, deferring trash pickup in order to keep safety issues on the front burner.
Wilson County needn’t wait on state officials to improve our roads’ appearance. We’ve tackled this dilemma before, and the effort forged an unlikely alliance that united diverse groups of Wilsonians behind a common goal.
In May 2019, the Democratic Women of Wilson County and the Wilson County Republican Party cosponsored a trash pickup contest to coincide with the NCDOT’s Spring Litter Sweep. The Bridgestone Cash for Trash team filled 21 garbage bags with litter from Firestone Parkway and claimed the $250 grand prize. The runner-up, a team representing WhirliDogs, filled 18 bags and earned $150.
After a successful first year, the contest wasn’t held in 2020. The DOT canceled its biannual Litter Sweep cleanup campaigns — held each year in the spring and fall — due to coronavirus concerns. COVID-19 was on everyone’s mind, and most other matters had to take a backseat.
As a nationwide vaccine rollout progresses and the pandemic begins to recede, it’s time Wilsonians redouble their efforts to keep roads and highways clean. Another joint effort by local Republicans and Democrats would be heartening amid today’s intense political polarization, but any community group could organize a similar contest. City and county government can also pitch in.
A Jan. 30 post on the city of Wilson’s Facebook page shared a link to a WRAL-TV story about increases in roadside trash and noted residents’ recent complaints.
“While litter pickup is not typically a city function, we are looking for ways we can help clean up Wilson while typical programs aren’t available,” the post states. “While we work to develop a solution, please help out and don’t litter.”
We welcome the city’s involvement and applaud any efforts to address the issue, whether they take the form of a bipartisan cleanup contest, a campaign led by nonprofits and civic groups, a city-sponsored program or a public-private partnership.
All it takes is some initiative. Who will be first to heed the call for cleaner roads?
A powerful state lawmaker wants to ratchet up the penalties for litterbugs caught fouling North Carolina’s highways and byways. House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, introduced the Highway Cleanup Act on Tuesday with cosponsors from both sides of the aisle.
Designated as House Bill 100, the legislation seeks to double the fines for intentional littering from the current range of $250 to $1,000 for a first offense to a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $2,000. The fine for unintentional littering would increase from $100 to $200.
“Like many North Carolinians, I am extremely frustrated and upset with the amount of trash and litter building up on the side of our roads,” Bell said in a news release. “As I travel and talk to people across the state, everyone agrees that something needs to be done to address the problem.”
HB 100 would also appropriate $500,000 for grants that would reimburse rural sheriffs’ offices’ overtime pay for litter cleanup and designate another $500,000 to promote and publicize the state’s anti-litter programs.
Higher costs may be intended primarily as a deterrent, but we’re skeptical of policies that extract large sums of money from low-level, nonviolent offenders. HB 100’s tweaks double the fines in North Carolina’s littering law while leaving the other penalty — eight to 24 hours of community service that judges can impose at their discretion — unchanged.
Why not make the punishment fit the crime? Increase the community service time, make it mandatory and require those hours to be spent on a highway cleanup detail. That will do far more to mitigate trashy thoroughfares than shaking people down for cash.
Under the state constitution, proceeds from fines are earmarked for local school districts. Fining litterbugs doesn’t bolster road maintenance budgets. Sending convicts out with trash bags, however, would be a force multiplier that actually makes a difference.
Though this bill needs work and would benefit from a rewrite, we commend Bell for his sincere effort to remedy a growing problem.
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