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ODOT's No. 1 task right now? Picking up litter

In the past nine months, ODOT crews in central Ohio have picked up more than 50,000 bags of litter, half in Franklin County alone.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Litter is the only problem the Ohio Dept. of Transportation faces that is 100% preventable.

That’s how the folks at ODOT see the problem of littering.

“There is absolutely a level of frustration with residents in the City of Columbus but also our crews at ODOT because they would way rather be out there making sure the roads are safe for you instead of cleaning up after you,” said Brooke Ebersole, ODOT District 6 public information officer.

“It takes ODOT crews away from other things that they could be doing to improve road. So rather than paving that stretch that’s out in front of your house, they’re out picking off the trash on 71."

In the past two years, ODOT has spent $1.4 million on litter pickup alone, half of that just in Franklin County. And crews have spent more than 14,000 hours doing it, the equivalent of seven years’ worth of work.

“It’s not only unsightly, but it can ultimately cause a safety issue,” Ebersole said. “That litter starts to accumulate in the shoulders, on the sides of roads. It ultimately goes in drains, and so, when we get into April weather and all these showers that we’re expecting, those drains clog up because there’s nowhere for that water to go, except back out on the roadway.”

And what do crews find?

These days, crews are finding masks, rubber gloves, fast food wrappers, cardboard boxes and a surprising amount of dental flossers.

“You would be amazed at the things that we pull out of those drains – pairs of pants, folding chairs, wrappers, little dental flossers,” Ebersole said. “I’ve seen more dental flossers this month than I really have ever cared to see in my entire lifetime.”

A number of factors have compounded the problem.

First, there was a bit of a rough winter, where crews were not able to get to some of the litter that remained buried under snow until the warmer weather arrived. Second, the pandemic put a stop to some of the extra help. Because of the safety concerns, pickup by the Adopt-A-Highway volunteers and prison inmate crews was put on hold.

Those programs are both slowly returning, but there is a lot of catching up to do.

“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” Ebersole said. “We can go out and pick litter really seven ways to Sunday, but then a week goes by, two weeks goes by, and it looks like we were never even out there.”

In the past nine months, crews in Central Ohio have picked up more than 50,000 bags of litter, half in Franklin County alone. That’s the equivalent of 334 dump trucks full of bags of litter.

It’s a problem Columbus city leaders have noticed, too.

“It’s bad, especially this time of year,” said Emmanuel Remy, a Columbus City Council member.

That’s why he led the effort to create the Cleaner Columbus Employment Program.

Last fall, with the help of money from the CARES Act, the city was able to temporarily employ nearly 400 people for three weeks to pick up litter around the city. The jobs paid at least $15 an hour.

“It was an astounding success,” Remy said. “They were able to collect 53% in that three-week period of what all of our volunteers did in 2019, pre-COVID.”

That’s just one of the reasons the city will be continuing the program this year, setting aside $550,000 to do it.

“We feel that, giving people the opportunity to work in these programs to earn some extra money, maybe if they’ve lost their job due to COVID, makes a lot of sense,” Remy said. 

Those who would like to volunteer also can do so through ODOT’s Adopt-A-Highway program. Of course, ODOT workers wish litter would not be a concern in the first place. They even banded together for a recent PSA, calling on Ohio stop tossing trash.

“The biggest message here is, keep the trash where it goes, keep it in your car until you get to a dumpster,” Ebersole said.

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