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Roadway trash costs taxpayers millions: 'It's up to Tennessee drivers'

Keep Knoxville Beautiful
MaryBeth Mahne
Keep Knoxville Beautiful

With an estimated 88 million pieces of trash on Tennessee roads and waterways, Tennesseans are paying millions in tax dollars for roadway litter pickup.

In 2022, motorists and vehicle debris were found to be the leading causes of roadway litter in Tennessee.

“It costs the Tennessee Department of Transportation over $23 million per year to pick up litter,” said Mark Nagi, the community relation officer for region 1 of TDOT. “We have our maintenance crews picking up litter on our roadways every day and we're trying to make people aware of the problem.”

This cost is funded by taxpayer money through tax on soft drinks and malt beverages.

“That's an expenditure that we're going to make no matter what. It isn't like, all of a sudden we've said okay, we have $23 million budgeted so we're not going to pick up trash on the roadways,” he said. “I mean, that's a number that is up to Tennessee drivers and passengers in these vehicles.”

The Tennessee Department of Transportation found an 18% increase in intentional litter throughout the state, making up 46.1% of roadway litter coming from vehicles.

Local roads have become the largest waste baskets in the state, with 80% of Tennessee’s roadside litter.

“Too often we see, you know, pickup trucks and and different vehicles like that that have not completely tied down their loads," Nagi said. "And because of that, unfortunately you see a lot of garbage and refuse that has left their vehicles and ended up on our roadways.”

The short-term solution is to collect this litter and put into place initiatives such as No Trash November. But that shouldn't exempt people from littering during the rest of the year.

“We do all that we can to be proper stewards of the public's tax dollars. But the public, also we again ask them to help us out and in turn helping us out helps their pocketbooks as well," Nagi said.

Reporting litter through TDOT’s litter hotline is another way to help. The hotline provides the individual reported with a reminder letter on how to contain their litter.

Amanda Seale, director of programs at Keep Knoxville Beautiful, said that Broadway and roads with a lot of pedestrian traffic are subject to the most litter, including Fort Sanders.

Bottles, cans, fast food containers and cigarette butts are among the most common litter collected in these areas.

Keep Knoxville Beautiful collected around 114,000 pounds of litter in the last fiscal year. Knox County was also the county that picked up the most litter in Tennessee during the No Trash November initiative last year.

Seale said education to incentivize new behavior will be the long-term solution to Knoxville’s roadway litter problem.

"We have to look at these structural changes to decrease the amount of litter," she said.

Through its programs, KKB educated about 3,600 individuals in the last fiscal year about waste reduction.

According to the Tennessee Environmental Council the state landfills about $180 million dollars of recyclable material every year that could be added to our economy. Zero waste plans are a potential solution to this issue.

Some places across the country have created zero waste and reduced waste plans, including a zero waste plan by 2030 in Kings County, Washington and a goal to divert 90% of landfill waste by 2040 in Austin.

Tennessee has implemented a zero waste day each year and programs that contain education and resources, however no zero waste plan has yet been created for Knox County.

(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)