Trash bins set out at commercial truck parking stops along the southwestern Wyoming stretch of the Interstate 80 corridor seem to be a magnet for trash instead of helping keep the areas clean.
Wyoming Department of Transportation Interim Director Darin Westby said it’s been an interesting social science experiment seeing the impact of how much trash builds up around rest areas with bins than those without.
At every rest stop he recently inspected, Westby said he found more trash on the ground surrounding trash receptacles than at locations where there was no garbage can at all.
Westby told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee last week about his past experience working at Cheyenne Frontier Days. There, his staff would place a recycling bin next to a garbage can with the hope people “would make the right decision if the decision is easy for them.”
Apparently for some litterbugs, 100 yards isn’t close enough.
“Unfortunately, with putting a trash bin at a parking area … people were just rolling down their window and just throwing the bag of trash out as opposed to walking 100 yards from their truck to put it in the trash bin,” Westby said.
The combination of trash littering the ground and Wyoming’s winter winds is a poor recipe for keeping the rest areas clean. WYDOT doesn’t have staff charged with picking up errant litter at rest stops, so winds pick up trash and carry it elsewhere along the I-80 corridor.
California State University social psychologist Wesley Schultz told The Allegheny Front in a 2016 story that littering used to be fairly socially acceptable in America as recently as the 1960s. But with the Keep America Beautiful and the “Crying Indian” public service announcements that were aired in the early 1970s, social perception changed.
“It sort of captured the idea that throwing litter, throwing waste into public spaces degraded that space,” Schultz said.
Schultz said that like many environmental issues, people usually commit to making positive change as long as it’s not too inconvenient for their everyday routines.
But when an area is already littered, such as an alleyway or I-80 rest stop, human psychology takes a negative turn.
“The presence of existing litter was strongly predictive of littering behavior,” Schultz said. “So if you’re in a place that’s already highly littered, you’re much more likely to litter than if you’re in a place that’s clean or free of litter.”
Plastic bottles, and sometimes even gallon jugs, filled with urine and tossed out of vehicle windows also have been a persistent problem along highways in Wyoming and across the country.
“We’re talking materials, not paper, but fecal material or just bodily fluids that are just bad and biohazards,” said Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston. “It doesn’t make that roadway very desirable.”
Westby said he is concerned for the safety of his staff and others picking up these types of materials, particularly with the rise of the highly potent opioid fentanyl in America.
WYDOT often leans on community volunteers through its Adopt-A-Highway program to help clean sections of the roads, but when no one steps up the state agency must take charge of the issue.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, expressed doubt that all Adopt-A-Highway signs and responsibilities are updated in Wyoming. Boner mentioned one stretch of I-25 between Cheyenne and Douglas that is claimed by an organization that has been defunct since 2005.
The problem of trash is just one of the many challenges WYDOT faces after a long winter that left numerous potholes and other damage to roads across the state.
“There’s really a lot here I’m trying to get my head wrapped around,” Westby said.
Westby said his staff is studying whether trash bins are effective in curtailing litter or if they contribute to the problem. He said they may initiate a “pack it in, pack it out” program similar to what is seen in some state parks, putting the onus on people to take care of their own trash.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com