Josh Bergeron: Prioritize litter control in Rowan

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2020

Consider this incredible fact: the county’s Department of Environmental Management removed nearly 50 tons of litter and 157 tires from Rowan roadsides in 2019.

Put another way, the total is equivalent to the weight of 485 average-weight American men (197.8 pounds) or 563 average-weight American women (170.5 pounds), according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s enough tires for nearly 40 cars.

It’s even more astounding when considering the total doesn’t include any illegal dumping sites off of the roadway or, most notably, parking lots of retail stores or fast food restaurants. Depending on the location, a parking lot’s litter could range from free-flying plastic to half-eaten meals — something that’s, shamefully, not entirely uncommon.

Every so often, the Post receives letters to the editor from people scolding the state of litter in Salisbury and Rowan County. Infrequently, public officials talk about it. Usually, it’s accepted as an unfortunate reality of modern-day life. Plastic abounds, some people don’t particularly care to put waste in its place and life continues on among plastic tumbleweeds.

It would be refreshing to see local elected officials, at the municipal, county or state level, make environmental management a priority. Local government, for example, could expand existing programs, enact and enforce harsher fines and create incentives other than fines for businesses to keep their parking lots and storefronts clean.

Residents and businesses pay enough taxes, fines and fees for local government offer a small incentive for exemplary litter control, whether it’s on their property or nearby. The N.C. Department of Transportation offers an adopt-a-highway program that’s aimed at controlling debris and trash, but it’s not enough to fully deal with litter that’s dumped daily and Rowan County has 2,498.58 shoulder miles of roadway.

There aren’t nearly enough roads “adopted” to handle that total.

In a county with more than 140,000 residents it’s certainly possible to round up one or two people per mile for a cleanup day. Just imagine how many pounds of litter locals could pick up on a countywide cleanup day with that kind of participation.

Rowan County Environmental Management Director Caleb Sinclair said the nearly 50 tons and 157 tires represents the work of one man. Throughout the year, that person’s collections totaled 15,660 pounds in the first quarter (January through March),  25,524 pounds in the second quarter (April through June), 29,177 pounds in the third quarter (July through September) and 25,635 pounds in the fourth quarter (October through December).

It’s also critical to think about public relations campaigns that might help change people’s ownership of the environment around them. Ultimately that’s the problem when someone unwraps a box at Walmart and leaves the packaging in the parking lot or finishes a drink and tosses it out of their car’s window.

State legislators from Rowan can take more action like that of Rep. Harry Warren, who crafted a bill in the 2019 legislative session that attempted to tackle the widespread use of single-use plastics. Often, that plastic ends up in streams, rivers, oceans and the stomachs of animals who don’t know any better.

Importantly, making environmental management a priority shouldn’t only be about picking up litter. Water and air quality are equally important. While local government’s policy-making authority in those areas is limited, there’s certainly a place for locals in enforcement.

Today, there are too many areas where partisan politics creates unpersuadable “teams,” but keeping things clean in Rowan is only about making our community a nicer place to live.

If, as it seems, people are fed up, maybe it’s time to demand that elected officials take action on environmental management, too, and ensure conversations expand past boilerplate topics like economic development, education and crime.

It will be difficult to impossible to change the view of people who are guilty of littering on a regular basis, but it’s a cause worth pursuing. In the meantime, there’s a role for all of us in cleanup and/or changing our own behaviors.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.