(Editor’s note: This originally was published in June 2020. We’re re-publishing it in honor of Allen Schauffler’s retirement.)
I walk my dogs almost every day and I’m always amazed at the junk I see tossed out on the side of the road.
So I decided to conduct a simple experiment and find out how much trash could be out there along Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes County roads.
I picked a section of S.W. Houston Lake Road, about five miles north of the Powell Butte store. Houston Lake Road runs through farm and ranch country. It isn’t the busiest stretch of road in our region and it’s not the quietest.
Turns out it’s a peaceful, two-lane, stretched-out trash heap.
Donning safety vest, knee pads, gloves, hard-hat, and grabbing one of those extensions, pistol-grip trash-picking tools, I mark out my mile with start and finish lines drawn in the roadside gravel and get to work.
It isn’t easy and it isn’t quick.
I put in five solid hours of walking, picking, grabbing, grubbing on my hands and knees, jumping across water-filled ditches, hauling my bucket and filling trash bags, poking through barbed wire fences and picking up everything I can find that doesn’t belong out there.
And whose job is it to pick up all this junk?
Across the state of Oregon, it is a mostly volunteer job; it’s up to you and me and whoever counties and cities and the state can convince to go out there and get it done.
Deschutes, Crook, and Jefferson Counties all have “adopt-a-road” or “adopt-a-highway” programs. Individuals or businesses or non-profit groups pick sections of roadway and conduct cleanup sweeps at least twice a year.
Nobody tracks how much they pick up, or what it is that’s being tossed out onto public land.
A spokesperson for the Deschutes County roads department estimates the 132 volunteer teams pick up “about 500 large bags of trash” a year.
It’s not weighted, sorted, or recycled: it all goes straight to the dump.
Same with the garbage the volunteer jail-inmate crews pick up. The Sergeant in charge tells us the Deschutes county crew bagged up more than 25 tons of trash in 2019. Lots of cigarette butts, the inmates tell us, and lots of plastic. But again, it’s not sorted; not weighted; not recycled.. it just goes straight to the dump.
Back to Houston Lake road now and my growing pile of trash-bags, filled with an amazingly varied collection of junk – 66 pounds of it.
I take the time to dump it out, sort it, and find out what the people who drive here think is worth throwing out the window or off the tractor.
There are cigarette butts, fast-food cartons, paper and plastic cups, glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic single-serve drink bottles, shotgun shells, a sock, a partially used package of “emergency contraceptive” still in the drug-store bag, a cell-phone cover, lots of blue twine used to tie up hay-bales, a couple of farm-machine oil-filters, chunks of wood, ceramic tile, odd bits of metal and plastic and glass, car-parts, disintegrating cardboard boxes.
And confirming what I’ve observed over the last few years of dog-walking, lots and lots of light-beer containers, Coors and Kokanee mostly.
I pick out the recyclables because I just hate throwing away money, but the rest is going where it belongs, to the nearest dump.
Now let’s top some math and I admit there is nothing very scientific about these calculations; I really don’t know if the poundage picked up in my “country mile” is representative of all other country miles in the tri-county area but it’s the only number I have to work with.
Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties are responsible for maintaining for 1,634 miles of roads; not city streets, not state highways.
Simple multiplication tells us there could be 107,844 pounds or about 54 tons of garbage, sitting out there at any given time.
Not on Houston Lake road, though. We figure it’s now the cleanest country mile in the High Desert.