Trash Talk: Birmingham’s Litter Problem

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Christopher Burts shakes open a trash bag as a litter patrol begins pickup along I-459. He’s the litter patrol supervisor for Sweeping Corporation of America. That’s an Ohio-based private company contracted by the Alabama Department of Transportation. The company’s job is to clear highways of trash and debris.

Burts oversees a cleanup crew of six people, and he says the trashiest part of his route is between Birmingham and Fairfield.

“It’s a lot of trash out here,” Burts says. “Cans, bottles, and cardboard boxes. You got items from 18-wheelers that’s flying off, we have to pick that up,” he says.

William “Dee” McDaniel, ALDOT’s operations engineer for the Birmingham region, says the crews cover a lot of ground — nearly 18 miles a day. But it feels like their work is never done.

“I’ve seen several instances where within 24 hours we go back out there and it looks like we haven’t picked anything up,” McDaniel says.

“So picking up litter, unfortunately, will be a never-ending process for us. That’s just one of the things we have to budget for and schedule on a regular basis.”

McDaniel says ALDOT spends $1.9 million a year on litter pick-up across the Birmingham region. He says of all the cities in that area, Birmingham is the trashiest.

In a recent meeting, some city council members accused Mayor Randall Woodfin of not doing enough to keep the city clean. But Woodfin says residents have to do their part.

“You got a whole bunch of folk who instead of holding things in their car, they just throw it outside their window,” he says. “We don’t have a problem enforcing but we got a problem with folk who don’t wanna take care of their own place,” Woodfin says.

Councilman Steven Hoyt says Birmingham’s public works department, which oversees sanitation, is understaffed. Hoyt says the city is filthy, and he blames the mayor.

“The mayor has the sole responsibility of keeping this city clean. It’s his responsibility. If he has initiatives that he thinks would work, he wouldn’t have a problem with the council supporting those initiatives,” Hoyt says.

Birmingham has an ordinance that imposes fines on people who litter, but Hoyt says no one is enforcing the law.

McDaniel hopes a solution is in place soon. It’s a busy time of year for trash.

“As spring and summer months get here and more people are on the road of course traveling through and so forth, obviously we have an increase in litter that we usually have to pick up,” he says.

Burts, who supervises the highway litter patrol, says drivers will throw almost anything out of the window — even dirty diapers. But he says that’s not the nastiest thing the patrol picks up.

“The lil bottles that sit on the side, they might have pee in it,” Burts says. “And you don’t know until you go to sticking it and put it in a bag and you’ll be walking like …” what is that smell, he says.

It’s times like this he remembers being a kid, and his mother would tell him “quit throwing stuff out the window” because you never know who has to pick it up.


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